Case Western Reserve University engineers are working with partners at two other universities and an Italian-owned company in Michigan to study, predict, and optimize how robots will interact with human co-workers in factories of the future. While robots have been increasingly integrated into manufacturing since their introduction in the early 1960s, true human-robot workplace collaboration is still in the early stages and is only recently being earnestly studied by academics. Most researchers anticipate humans taking on the more nimble decision-making, while robots contribute by lifting heavy tools or putting the right tool at a worker's side when needed. "You could see this more on an assembly line, where the human is building an engine, screwing the spark plugs into the engine block, and the robot is handing him the right tools and parts at the right time," says Robert Gao, Chairman of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Gao is principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded project examining robot-human collaborations in manufacturing workplaces.
Julie Shah is an associate professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and leads the Interactive Robotics Group of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She previously worked at Boeing Research and Technology on robotics applications for aerospace manufacturing. She has developed innovative methods for enabling fluid human-robot teamwork in time-critical, safety-critical domains, ranging from manufacturing to surgery to space exploration. Her group draws on expertise in artificial intelligence, human factors, and systems engineering to develop interactive robots that emulate the qualities of effective human team members to improve the efficiency of human-robot teamwork.