Who Is Talking about Collaborative Robots?

They have been touted as the future of robotics, the next frontier in industrial automation, and to the SMEs, the great equalizer. Collaborative robots have been in every expert, enthusiast, industrialist and engineer’s lips for better part of the last decade. Now that we see Cobots in their true form, perhaps it’s time to see how the debate has been shaped along the way.

A Quick Introduction to Collaborative Robots

A collaborative robot is a type of robot designed to work alongside a human in a shared workspace. This is in stark contrast with traditional industrial robots that requires a safety fence or enclosure. 

The earliest known implementation of collaborative robots can be traced back to an intelligence assist device created at Northwestern University and UC Berkeley in the 90s. However, real collaborative robots came to market about a decade ago. Today, collaborative robots have become a significant component of automation. They have also changed how we look at industrial automation in more ways than one. 

Understandably, there has been a lot of debate and coverage on the topic of collaborative automation.  Every major publication has published stories about the various talking points or developments in the collaborative automation industry. Some have said that collaborative robots could end the speculation about robots taking over every job, while others believe that Cobots are the great equalizer due to their relatively low overheads.

Andrea Thomaz Talking About the Social Cobot

One of the highlights in the Collaborative automation discussion is a 2015 TED talk presented by Andrea Thomaz- a well-known and respected roboticist. Andrea gave an eye-opening talk on the future of robotics where collaborative robots could take center stage.

Some of the key points in her talk included;

  • She envisioned a future where robots could help humans do day to day tasks like cooking, tending the garden, cleaning after you, among others. 
  • Uncertainty and random events prevented the placement of robots in an environment shared by humans.
  • She used a human-like collaborative robot to demonstrate how such a robot could perform in real life. One of the important aspects covered in the demo is the safety monitored stop. A collaborative robot is different from a standard robot in that it can dynamically alter its movements when a human gets in its way.
  • Motion planning- How collaborative robots have to dynamically alter their motions in order to work alongside a human.
  • Interaction- Unlike traditional robots, collaborative robots are designed to interact with a human operator. In an ideal human-robot team, a Cobot should be able to react to motions and instructions according to the task at hand. This interactivity has been implemented in a number of ways in modern collaborative robots. A great example is the hand guiding feature available in a universal robot arm.

This TED talk is perhaps one of the few shining examples demonstrating the possibility of having real collaborative automation as part of daily life. 

What Other Experts Have Said About Collaborative Robots 

 Andrea is not alone in the debate around collaborative automation. Here a sampling of what some notable figures have said about Collaborative robots over the years.

In an interview with tech.eu- a European publication- Esben Østergaard former CTO at universal robots said that collaborative robots could be a gamechanger in industrial automation. While Universal Robot’s initial plans were to market collaborative robots to small and medium-sized enterprises, large companies have also shown great interest in acquiring them, he said. 

Talking to the Financial Times, Ravin Jesuthasan-MD at Willis Towers Watson opined that collaborative robots could allow workers to focus on more on meaningful work as the robot took care of repetitive tasks.

The IFR (International Federation of Robotics) has, in the recent past, painted an optimistic picture of the future of collaborative robotics. According to their press release, collaborative robot sales will continue to rise in 2020. The collaborative robot will become smarter, easier to program and more versatile.

Final Remarks

The collaborative robot will continue to attract debate in the foreseeable future as improved Cobots and end effectors hit the market. Of course, more discussion is good for the publicity and continued success of the collaborative robot. 

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