At WPI, a humanoid robot with a heart of LEDs

The most memorable thing about the Atlas robot being tested at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is its humanoid form. While robots that vacuum living rooms or dispose of roadside bombs in Afghanistan roll around on wheels or caterpillar treads, Atlas walks and looks like a man. And while that might seem appealing, robotics industry analysts predict that the market for human-shaped robots will be fairly limited.

“Yes, there’s a few places where they’re really really wonderful, but in terms in the commercial market I’d be more doubtful,” said Susan Eustis, president of WinterGreen Research in Lexington. “The human is not the most efficient way to manage a lot of situations.” For instance, the tracked robots used in war zones “can be small, maneuverable, cheap to make.” The additional bulk and cost of a humanoid robot can only be justified when the mission requires a human-shaped machine. Eustis said that such robots might be useful in the radiation-tainted control room of a nuclear power plant, but she said that’s not a large enough market to sustain a viable business. “You need to find an application that’s compelling, where there’s a budget, and people are likely to spend,” said Eustis. “I ‘m having a hard time identifying that kind of market for humanoid robots.”

Dan Kara, president of Electra Studios, a robotics research firm, was even more skeptical about humanoid robots as rescue workers. “I don’t think there’s a great demand for them,” Kara said. “That product’s never going to come to market.” But Kara holds out hope that human-shaped robots could catch on as assistants in hospitals or senior care facilities. “People prefer to deal with the humanoid form factor,” he said.

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