Robotics occupies an odd place in contemporary popular culture, as this technology is regarded with a curious mixture of eager anticipation and narrow-eyed dread. We all expect robots, and automation technology in general, to assume increasing importance in our society—but what is the endgame of all this advancement? Will robotics make our lives easier? Or will it simply turn society into a sci-fi dystopia as automation causes the unemployment rate to skyrocket?
The advent of collaborative robots –"cobots" – may serve as an indication that future developments in robotic technology will be a net benefit to our society.
Before we go further, it's important to be clear about what a collaborative robot is, exactly. As the name implies, they are designed to operate in cooperation with another agent—a human being. This sets cobots apart from traditional robots that function autonomously.
Motion Ai provides cobots that help workers—they do not replace human personnel. They do this by guiding and correcting human activities in the workplace, and/or by taking over simple functions so workers can occupy themselves with other tasks. Many cobots "learn" their tasks through hand-guiding technology, where a human operator literally leads them through a given process step by step, which the machine is then able to repeat under its own power.
Cobots are not associated with a particular design; one common type, though hardly the only variety, is an articulated arm attached to a base. Cobots do, however, tend to share certain characteristics. Because they are intended to complement human activity, these machines are engineered for safety. Therefore, they typically cannot generate enough torque to cause injury if they come into contact with human personnel, or they are equipped with force-limiting features that enable them to shut down instantly if they encounter a foreign object.
They often have motion-detection sensors that stop their activities if any contact is made. Therefore, these robots can literally work side by side with people without posing a significant health hazard or requiring the use of safety cages. They also tend to be lightweight and mobile, which means that they can be easily shifted to another area of a facility when necessary.
Cobots have already made inroads on the assembly line, performing a variety of simple tasks with minimal human intervention. These machines can be used, for instance, for quality control purposes, such as detecting the presence of defective or non-standard products and removing them from the line. They can also test circuit boards, load pallets, apply paint, and affix or tighten small objects.
Cobots are able to manage simple tasks that might cause repetitive stress injuries in human personnel, and they can operate well in temperatures that would be uncomfortable or intolerable to people. They can manipulate materials that may be unsafe for human handling.
Bear in mind, however, that a single cobot is unlikely to perform all of these functions; the foregoing is just a sample of the range that this technology has to offer. Cobots can't do everything—as we have pointed out, their job is to help human beings do their jobs.
The notion of collaborative robots in the healthcare sector makes a lot of sense when you consider that this field is all about collaboration—people getting the medical assistance they need from individuals specifically qualified for this purpose. Cobots can be used to help with simple maintenance and upkeep tasks, like setting up or putting away beds, in order to take some of the burden off busy nursing aides.
Cobots provide invaluable help in the operating room as well. Machines of this nature aren't susceptible to muscle fatigue or involuntary tremors, so they're well suited to surgeries that demand enormous precision. When guided by an experienced physician, cobots can execute virtually error-free procedures.
Cobots also work wonders in biomedical applications that demand sterile environments—for instance, the preparation of vaccines. It goes without saying that biomedical materials of this nature must be handled with enormous care. Accidental contamination requires only a moment's inattention.
That's why these materials are often handled in cleanrooms—controlled areas where contaminants are strictly regulated. These areas can be compromised very easily, which is why human personnel typically must pass through a shower room prior to entering them, and must be barred from the area altogether if they display any signs of sickness. Cobots are much less likely to contaminate these environments, which makes them ideal for use in these kinds of applications.
We haven't yet arrived at the RoboCop era, but collaborative robots in the law enforcement field provide an especially vivid example of the usefulness of this technology. We're talking about bomb disposal. You may have already seen this procedure dramatized in a movie: A tiny mobile robot under remote control guidance ventures into a building, locates an active bomb, and then attempts to remove it from the immediate area.
Cobots can also be utilized to obtain video or photographic evidence from environments that are judged to be too perilous for human personnel. Occasionally they're used to help negotiations during hostage situations by opening a line of communication between the parties involved.
In all these scenarios, the cobot is operated by a human operator who controls the machine via a monitor while remaining safely away from any dangers that might arise.
The construction field can be harsh on human bodies. Workers are routinely subject to a number of dangers, from heavy mobile objects to simple wear and tear from repetitive tasks. Fortunately, cobots have already shown that they can take over some of the busywork involved with construction tasks. For instance, cobot welders are in use in some facilities, where they are called upon for welding tasks that require precision accuracy, like preparing support beams for new buildings.
Additional applications for which cobots are used include laying bricks and pouring cement—tasks that human beings tend to find tedious at best and hazardous at worst. In the construction industry, cobots reduce expenses, speed up assembly processes, and lower the risk of personal injury.
For anyone who is involved with the agricultural industry, the business of harvesting crops occupies a lot of time and energy, whether you're talking about physically picking them from the field or providing some type of support service for this task. Robotic technology can save an enormous amount of resources by automating this process to a large extent.
What about delicate crops that require careful handling? How do you keep robots from damaging them? This is an issue that so far has limited the usefulness of robots in the agricultural sector but, in recent years, technology—particularly the force-limiting capabilities of cobots—has begun to crack this problem. With cobots, fragile crops can be harvested at speeds that would be unthinkable in an agricultural operation that relies solely on human hands. This has the potential of substantially reducing the labor expenses involved in harvesting—savings that could be passed on to the consumer.
The technology of collaborative robots continues to evolve. Undoubtedly, cobots will make inroads into other fields and industries as their range of capabilities broadens and enables them to perform tasks barely imaginable today. Although it's impossible to predict with confidence what the future will bring, it seems likely that these eminently useful machines will effectively serve as our coworkers, not our robot overlords.