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Post-Pandemic Scenarios – XXVI – Robots and Company

Human robot collaboration is increasing in many sectors eventually leading to augmented humans. Image credit: Universal Robots

Robots have become pervasive in many sectors and their presence and capabilities are going to keep increasing in the coming years. The FTI’s report includes several areas of evolution, made possible by technology increased capabilities. In the following I provide a list (addressed in the FTI’s report) adding to each area the technology driving the evolution:

  • Robots as a Service – RaaS: Cloud, Edge Cloud, 5G, Digital Twins, Artificial Intelligence
  • Cobots: Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language interface, Digital Twins, Augmented Reality, Edge Cloud, Smart materials, 5G
  • Robots Swarms: 5G, Digital Twins, Artificial Intelligence
  • Smart Dust: MEMS, nanotech, Smart Materials, low power communications
  • Self Assembling Robots: smart materials, Digital Twins, Artificial Intelligence
  • Soft Robotics: Smart materials, flexible/printable electronics
  • Robot Compilers: Artificial Intelligence

Notice the (almost ubiquitous) presence of artificial intelligence.

Robots as a Service

The growing use of robots in manufacturing, warehouses and logistics has led to an effort of simplifying the creation and management of robotic environments. Platforms developed by Amazon (AWS Robomaker), Google (Cloud Robotics) and others allow developers and system integrators to create a virtual ambient to test and operate clusters of robots. Some of the functionalities can be offered as a Service, thus minimising capital investment and accelerating deployment. Notice that as robots are more and more software based machines, subject to continuous evolution (deployment of new software releases)  their management in terms of virtual objects becomes very important since a specific (user) company does not need to keep abreast of software changes but can simply refer to the RaaS platform.

Cobots

Collaborative Robots, aka Cobots, represent both an evolution of robots in the industry sector and a trend towards human augmentation. More specifically, they are a departure from industry robot because cobots:

  • are designed to be safe for humans in their proximity (they don’t require any “fencing” to avoid contact);
  • are designed to complement human actions by collaborating to achieve the end goal (whereas industrial robots are designed to carry out a specific task in a sequential way, when they are on the task there is no human around on the same task)
  • require a seamless interface to interact with humans in the “team”, more and more using natural language interaction;

Cobots are evolving in three steps:

  1. becoming more aware of their environment, including more aware of the humans in the team, and able to adjust, autonomously,  to changes;
  2. becoming able to learn from their team participants (e.g. by observing humans in the team they learn and adapt);
  3. becoming able to “teach” to other members of the team (tell humans what to do to improve the teamwork);
  4. act in symbioses with a specific human resulting in a seamless extension (augmentation) of that person capability.

Artificial intelligence is one of the main steering enablers for the evolution of cobots, since it supports the ambient awareness and seamless communications “in the team”. 5G, particularly private 5G, may also become a strong enabler providing low latency connectivity across the team and supporting augmented reality visualisation.  Digital Twins are also a growing component in cobots as they are bridging the various team participants through the cyberspace.

According to the International Federation of Robotics 2020 Report, the cobots market share is still tiny, 4.8% in 2019, but it is the fastest growing segment, so it makes sense to pay attention to this segment in the coming years.

Although there has been a slow-down in the acquisition of industrial robots in 2020 (-12%), because of the pandemic, it is expected a prompt recovery, as already been seen in China leading to an acceleration in the adoption of robots, as part of the lessons learnt from the pandemic and impact on the work processes.

Look at the AURA  Cobot in the video created by Comau as an example of current cobots.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.