Cobots Lend a Helping Hand

Mark Patrick, Mouser Electronics

Assistance with demanding or onerous tasks is always appreciated. Now, potentially, there is a whole new army of volunteers readily available to fill that role. Robots have long been used in manufacturing environments to take care of various functions – such as those involving heavy lifting or likely to lead the repetitive strain injuries, or where repeatability has to be maintained for long periods of time. In the past there has needed to be a clear demarcation – in the form of cages – between the zones in which humans work and those occupied by robots. This was necessary to avoid the risk of members of the human workforce being harmed by their bulky mechanical partners. It prevented cooperation between these two parties however.

So-called cobots – or collaborative robots – could change all that. These are not designed to take the place of humans on the factory floor, as many workers fear. Rather, they are there to do the tasks humans would really prefer not to be doing, so that they can concentrate on the ones that they are better suited to and benefit from their intelligence and experience. Studies have shown that workers become demotivated when they are repeatedly asked to do the same tedious tasks day in day out. Fortunately, cobots have no concept that there could be another side to life. They don’t need to be stimulated by new activities or challenges.

Cobots are intended to work in much closer proximity to their human work colleagues than was the case with the previous generation of robots (which were kept were separate them). While this approach gives rise to the need for a raft of new standards designed to protect the workers involved, it also provides the opportunity to utilise and apply knowledge acquired in other branches of technology.

Typically, cobots are lighter weight than their robotic predecessors. This is because they may well be moved around a shop floor to fulfil a multitude of different functions. Their easier programmability is another of their differentiating factors. They are also equipped with a range of sensors and employ smart technologies that are often connected to the Internet of Things (IoT).

The cobots being deployed in the industrial sector are making use of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Even so, there remains a currently insuperable barrier between human and machine intelligence. Even with rapid advances in AI, machines (and cobots of course clearly fall into this category) are incapable of coming anywhere close to the levels of sensitivity and flexibility that humans are capable of. Even the smallest change to the cobot’s routine or task path requires an extensive reprogramming exercise.

Cobot designers are also taking inspiration from developments in the automotive industry with regard to autonomous vehicles – as both these areas share human safety as a key concern. Autonomous vehicles will need to avoid collisions with humans and other objects on the road, while cobots will need to avoid crashing into humans in the workplace. In addition to developments in sensors, their designers are making use of advanced HD imaging techniques, such as LiDAR – which relies on pulsed beams of laser light to measure distances and subsequently build up a detailed mapping of the surrounding location.

Another rapidly developing area from which cobot designers are learning is in technology for care of the disabled and elderly. The rise in the number of service personnel with life-changing disabilities through loss of a limb has given rise to great growth in the market for replacement limbs. This has necessitated the development of techniques for sensing touch and recognising feedback in terms of forces that are applied. Both of these are highly applicable in the field of cobotic design. When they are in close proximity to humans, cobots need to know how much force to use and what the limitations need to be. Cobots – which generally consist of a robotic arm of some kind – can be taught new tasks by physically manipulating the arm, rather like walking them through their moves.

Augmented reality (AR) is yet another area that has much in store for cobot designers. If humans wear AR headsets, it is possible for them to perceive things in much the same way as their robotic counterparts do – seeing potential obstacles in a cobot’s path or objects that it has perhaps identified incorrectly.

While there is no possibility that robots will take over from humans, all of this cross-fertilisation of cutting-edge technology will make manufacturing and processing facilities far more operationally effective, thereby significantly boosting productivity levels. Repetitive work will be undertaken by automated machinery, leaving humans to apply their more versatile intelligence to performing tasks that require a degree of subtle variation. In this way, humans and machines can truly work together side by side, and society can reap the rewards.