We’ve come a long way from clunky, claw-handed Robot from Lost in Space.

Robots have had industrial and entertainment uses for a number of years, but researchers at Washington State University are rethinking robots’ design, tasks, and collaboration with humans. From the tiniest self-powered robot to soft robots, fruit-picking bots, and swarms of small robots like bees that can search collapsed buildings, the very idea of what is a “robot” is changing.

The creation of the National Robotics Initiative in 2011 also pushed the field toward more collaborative robots (or co-robots), which are designed to work cooperatively with humans. The robots are no longer just in factories; they’re in hospitals, farms, autonomous cars, and in space.

Here are a few of the areas of robotics that WSU is working on.


Swarms of bee-sized robots

Imagine a world where tiny, insect-like robots can help humans in a variety of tasks, from searching buildings after a collapse to assisting doctors in complex surgeries. Néstor O. Pérez-Arancibia, Flaherty Associate Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME), received a Cougar Cage grant to work on reducing the size of a microrobot by creating a hybrid battery that uses both electricity and liquid fuel.

He plans to develop a swarm of the robotic insects, with 50 of them able to crawl and the other 50 able to fly.

Cougar Cage matches private donors with projects pitched by WSU faculty, staff, and students, bringing support to worthwhile projects that might not receive funding from bigger grant programs.


Making robots more approachable

Despite significant advancement in robotic technology and the perks of human-robot collaboration, people are still apprehensive about them. Ming Luo, also Flaherty Assistant Professor in MME, wants to know if softening robots will make them more acceptable. He plans to coat robots with soft materials and then measure anxiety, perceived risk levels, and general attitudes of humans toward them to see if they improve.

He also received a Cougar Cage grant for the project.


Robots in orchards

Last spring, WSU joined forces with researchers, fruit growers, and technology companies in the Netherlands and Washington state to solve major tree fruit challenges through orchard automation and robotics.

Participating scientists will develop prototypes including a robot for pruning and harvesting pears, a precision sprayer for fruit crops, sensors and algorithms to collect data on apples and pears, and decision models for apples and pears based on collected data and expert knowledge.

WSU Associate Professor Manoj Karkee, a Prosser-based specialist in field robotics and automation, said the partnership will help build expertise and knowledge from a variety of perspectives, while making the team of scientists more competitive for US and European research funding.

The project extends across WSU, including researchers from Extension, Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center at Wenatchee, the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center and the Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems at Prosser, and the AgWeatherNet.

Karkee and collaborators earlier began a separate research project into robotic pollination. Robots that detect flower blossoms and spread pollen could supplement the work of honey bees and other pollinators.


Finding the right hospitality robots

People are more comfortable talking to female rather than male robots working in service roles in hotels, according to a study by Soobin Seo, assistant professor of hospitality management at Carson College of Business at WSU Everett.

Seo also found that the preference was stronger when the robots were described as having more human features.

Even before the pandemic, the hotel industry struggled with high turnover of employees, and Seo notes that some hotels have turned to robots and automation for a variety of functions from dishwashing and room cleaning to customer service such as greeting guests and delivering luggage.

Examples range from the female humanized robots named “Pepper” at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas to the fully automated FlyZoo hotel chain in China where guests interact only with robots and artificial intelligence features.

Robot developers as well as for hospitality employers have a lot to consider as they think about adopting robots more widely, Seo says.

“We may start to see more robots as replacements of human employees in hotels and restaurants in the future, so we may find that some of the psychological relationships that we see in human-to-human interaction also implemented in robot interactions,” she says.


Robotics education at WSU

The Robotics and Autonomous Systems Initiative in MME continues to grow WSU’s work in autonomous systems including robotics, control systems, and machine learning. Through undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as bringing in new faculty with expertise in robotics, the program will partner with industry in the state and region.

WSU Robotics club also draws in students to design, build, and program robots on projects like:

  • NASA RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition
  • Medical robotics (2015-2016 prosthetic hand)
  • Ping-Pong robot
  • Robotic arm for playing chess
  • Battlebot
  • Internet of Things

Students also take part in Palouse RoboSub Club, with the goal of building an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to enter in the yearly international AUVSI competition in San Diego, California. The club includes senior design groups from both WSU and University of Idaho.