As Robots Fill the Workplace, They Must Learn to Get Along

As Robots Fill the Workplace, They Must Learn to Get Along

Warehouses, factories, and hospitals are deploying more robots, often made by different companies. That can lead to communication problems.

By Will Knight

So many robots work at Changi(ni) General Hospital in Singapore that until recently it wasn’t uncommon(ˌənˈkämən) to find two delivery(dəˈliv(ə)rē) bots sitting in a hallway or outside an elevator in a standoff.

Such impasses used to happen “several times a day,” says Selina Seah, who directs the hospital’s Center for Healthcare Assistive(əˈsistiv) and Robotics(rōˈbädik) Technologies. Unsure how to move around another object, or human passersby, the robots would simply freeze, each waiting for the other to move first. “The humans would have to actually go down and pull them apart,” she says.

Seah says Changi has about 50 robots, from eight manufacturers. As at other hospitals, robotic systems assist professionals with delicate(ˈdelikət) surgical(ˈsərjək(ə)l) procedures and guide patients through surgery(ˈsərj(ə)rē) and rehabilitation(ˌrē(h)əˌbiləˈtāSH(ə)n) exercises. At Changi, dozens of mobile robots also perform tasks like cleaning or delivering medication, supplies, and patient notes. But they’re not good at communicating with one another.

The standoffs at Changi offer a glimpse(ɡlim(p)s) of a future problem for many businesses, as multiple robots, from different makers, struggle to navigate within the same busy spaces. Besides health care, robots are rapidly(ˈrapədlē) being adopted in manufacturing and logistics(ləˈjistiks) and are starting to appear in stores and offices.