This Robot Will Assist Humans with the Maintenance of other Robots

The SecondHands project aims to build a humanoid robot that will help robot maintenance teams complete their job
Jessica Miley

SecondHands is a robot designed to help fix other robots. This helpful bot is a product of a collective project called SecondHands that aims to investigate how humanoid robots can work together. Supported by the European Union initiative called Horizon 2020 program, SecondHands is a collaboration between UK automated warehouse company Ocado, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and other research institutions like EPFL, UCL, and Sapienza University of Rome.

SecondHands, aims to “design a robot that can offer help to a maintenance technician in a proactive manner… as a second pair of hands that can assist the technician when he/she is in need of help.”

The team has developed a prototype robot using the sixth iteration of the ARMAR robot developed by Professor Tamim Asfour and his team at the High-Performance Humanoid Technologies Lab (H²T) at KIT’s Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics. Ocado is interested in developing a robot hat that helps human maintenance workers complete their job more efficiently and safely. 

This Robot Will Assist Humans with the Maintenance of other Robots
Source: KIT via IEEE Spectrum

Structured warehouse environment assist robot

Using robots in this type of work area makes sense as the tasks are fairly repetitive and predictable and the environment itself is highly regulated and structured. The warehouse operators aren’t looking to develop a robot to take over the tasks completely but something that would work seamlessly alongside humans to make their tasks more pleasant. While there are plenty of challenges to creating a useful colleague, Ocado says the challenge is well defined “in essence the robot will know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, in a manner that a human can depend on.”


To be successful the robot must deeply understand common maintenance tasks to a point where they can recognize what is going on and proactively offer assistance without constant prompting or requests. Essentially, the robot needs to pass the right tool before the human asks for it. As well as being a companion who can pass tools and collaboratively lift and hold, the robot should augment the human and offer assistance on tasks that are difficult due to an increased need for strength or precision. The finished robot needs a skill set that includes human action recognition, task planning computer vision techniques for 3D human pose estimation, human-robot physical interaction with bi-manipulation, and more.

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While each of these skills has been developed in robotics and in theory are possible, the SecondHands project takes on the challenge of fitting them all together into a single humanoid robot. The project is exciting as it brings together labs and research spaces with particular specialties to work together on a common robotic goal. The team believes they will be able to achieve their shared goal of having the SecondHands robot helping out humans in an Ocado warehouse by roughly 2020. 

This Robot Will Assist Humans with the Maintenance of other Robots
Source: KIT via IEEE Spectrum

The SecondHands website hosts a lot of resource materials about the team's ongoing work including links to research papers that have been published from work related to the project. 

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