Sarcos Robotics: Interview with Ben Wolff


Sarcos Robotics is a global leader in the design, development and deployment of energetically autonomous, highly mobile and dexterous robots. Leveraging 30+ years of research and development, Sarcos is revolutionizing a myriad of industries by deploying robots that combine human intelligence, instinct and judgment with the strength, endurance and precision of machines to create the safest, most productive and cost-effective work force in the world.

We spoke to Ben Wolff, the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer & Director of Sarcos Robotics. In this role, he oversees the strategic direction of the company and engages with the company’s partners, customers and investors.

Prior to joining Sarcos, Ben served as Chief Executive Officer, President and Chairman at Pendrell Corporation from 2009 to 2014. In 2003, Wolff co-founded Clearwire Corporation, where he served as President, CEO and Co-Chairman.

The following are excerpts from the conversation between our Editor, Shah Ahmed and Ben Wolff:

Shah Ahmed (SA): Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us. We really appreciate it, and it is a pleasure talking to you.

Ben Wolff (BW): Absolutely. Let me give you a little bit of background about the company, and then get into your specific questions.

Sarcos was originally founded back in 1983. It was developed as a spin-off of the University of Utah. The company was originally focused on prosthetics so we developed a core competency around biomechanics and the way the human body interacts with machines.

We developed that competency over the first ten years of the company’s history, and we developed robotics systems that were biologically inspired by human bodies in the 1990s. We built a large number of very sophisticated humanoid robots starting in the early 1990s, and, since that time, we have built more humanoid robots than any other robotics company in the world.

The team at Sarcos has deep experience in the human form factor as it relates to robots and machines. Over the period between 1990 and 2007, we expanded our capabilities to include robots for use in research institutions in the early days of artificial intelligence research. We also developed robots for use in the entertainment industry, such as Disney theme parks around the world.

Sarcos has also provided a number of robotics products and systems to various government agencies, such as NASA, The Pentagon, U.S. Department Defense and others.

In 2007, Raytheon, a large defense company, purchased Sarcos and we became the robotics division of this company until 2014. At the end of 2014, we completed the management buyout, and today we are majority owned by our employees, and are no longer affiliated with Raytheon.

Since then, Sarcos has secured a number of blue chip investors, including G D R Schlumberger–a large oil and gas company, Caterpillar and Microsoft.

We are now focused on bringing three specific robotics products to the market. The Guardian S, is a small form factor, highly capable, mobile Internet of Things (IoT) platform that can perform inspections in challenging or difficult to reach locations. We are also focused on bringing products to the market in 2019 that will rely heavily on our experience of humanoid robots in the form factors that I described earlier.

SA: How does Sarcos draw inspiration from the natural environment?

BW: All of our products and systems have a suite of sensors built into the machine that range from visual, audio, infrared and gas sensors. The evolution of highly capable sensors involves using power with a lower form factor that enables us to collect a vast amount of data, both about how the machine is operating, and also about the environment in which the machine is located.

SA: Can you tell us a little bit more about the Guardian S?

BW: The Guardian S was originally conceived to be a robot that would be used for search and rescue applications in the mining industry. This industry faced big problems like people getting injured in the mine or being trapped.

A few years ago, we started working with the US government on a machine that would be capable of working in a very challenging environment similar to a mine. This environment included water, mud and other challenges, which are commonly referred to as slurry.

We determined there was a great need to develop a system that is robust enough to navigate through a mine and that is equipped with enough sensors to identify where the human is located. It also needed to communicate whether the environment is safe enough for search and rescue teams to locate and help save the worker who may be trapped.

That was the genesis. As we developed the Guardian S, we started discovering that there were a lot of other environments and applications where it would be dangerous or difficult for human beings to go. We also realized that being able to gain information about these specific environments would be highly useful as well.

The Guardian S is based on that original search and rescue robot. It has the capability with its sensors to go into confined spaces, like the inside of tanks.

Tanks are a space where people may be injured or killed on the job, and so being able to send any machine in to the space to evaluate the situation and conduct an inspection is incredibly advantageous. Our overall mission with the Guardian S is to remove humans from entering dangerous locations.

SA: What are the major hurdles you had to overcome to get to the point where you are now?

BW: First, developing a robot that could simply be able to navigate over challenging terrain was a hurdle. Most terrestrial-based or ground-based robots, like the ones that are used for Bomb-squads, or for police SWAT teams, look very much like small tanks as they must tread on either side of the terrain.

Current solutions have the ability to cover a lot of ground, but it is really challenging to get into small, tight spaces or to navigate over steep terrain, rocks or rubble. The very first thing we had to focus on was simply coming up with a unique form factor that would allow a machine to get over and through obstacles.

Once we were able to do that we needed to make the robot robust enough, have adequate power supply and integrate a modular platform that could accommodate different sensors. The sensors, which are attached to the body of the Guardian S, help the customer modify the machine to suit their needs.

We also needed to develop a robot that was applicable across a wide range of industries and a wide range of use-cases. This is a very different approach from how robots have been produced historically. Earlier robots were designed to deal with one specific task or address one specific problem. While this method has yielded great results, it also meant lower volumes and higher price points. Our focus at Sarcos is to build general purpose robots that can be used in a multitude of different ways, helping to drive volumes up, costs down and create a high degree of quality.

SA: How do you see the future of robotics with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in society, like in social situations?

BW: I think, particularly in the consumer environment, we’re going to see a significantly increasing amount of AI driving the way machines interact with human beings. Today, sensors in consumer-based robots are able to detect things like facial expression and voice and translate languages. It’s nothing short of incredible.

However, these machines are basically obtaining and interpreting data and then acting accordingly. That’s very different than the kind of use cases and applications that we see for the industries we are targeting with our robots. Our customers are dealing with high levels of risk, and human lives are at stake so they need products that leverage human instinct, judgment and intelligence. This is different from consumer products where the risk is low for the machine getting something wrong or right.

SA: What would you say to anyone entering the market as a start-up?

BW: My advice would be to focus on two key areas. First, make sure you’re going after a large enough market opportunity and use cases. The cost and quality of components today allows for making robots that can solve real-wolrd problems. But the real question from a start-up perspective is, “Are you solving a large enough problem? Is the market opportunity big enough? How receptive is that particular customer base to using robotics to solve a problem that they have historically had to solve in a different way?” These are all critical questions to ask yourself as you enter the robotics space.

The second point is that robotics is an incredibly complex subject. It includes a combination of electrical engineering, chemical engineering, user interface knowledge, hardware and software—a whole variety of different disciplines. It is easy to underestimate the breadth of knowledge and background needed to succeed in this field. You need to have access to a variety of resources and lots of experience in key areas.
SA: Is there something you would like to discuss specifically or cover as a part of the interview?

BW: I would like to shed some additional light on the Guardian S. The Guardian S is a machine that can detect what is going on in dangerous, difficult or challenging environments where, previously, human beings have been putting their lives at risk. We really want to create safer work environments for a variety of industries so that these workers are no longer putting their lives at risk on the job. The Guardian S reduces this risk while yielding better results due to increased accuracy and productivity. It will be a game changer for a wide array of industries ranging from defense, public safety, security, non-destructive testing, disaster recovery, infrastructure inspection, mining and oil and gas.