While general-purpose robots or human-level general artificial intelligence are a ways off, what are the actual robotics trends that experts are seeing? Both industrial automation and service robots are becoming more useful, observed several speakers and attendees at last month’s Automatica exposition in Munich, Germany. As machine learning and data analysis capabilities continue to improve, new applications of robot intelligence will emerge in the near future, they said.
“The robot is a tool for humans, and that’s how we should understand it,” said Sami Haddadin, chair of robotics science and systems intelligence at the University of Hanover. “We need to take things off people that are dangerous, that are not particularly exciting, and which simply free up our time. Robotic assistance can give people more time because it is a tool.”
‘No limit’ to robot intelligence for service needs
Haddadin predicted that robot intelligence will be particularly important for service robots.
“There seems to be no limit in the potential use of smart helpers,” he said. “The demand in agriculture, logistics, the field of care, and medicine is particularly high. State-of-the-art augmented technology, combined with robot controllers, will help rehabilitation patients in the future. A nursing robot will soon support patients in a Swiss nursing home.”
The robot that Haddadin referred to is Lio, from F&P Robotics AG. Frederik Zwilling, development engineer for F&P Robotics, explained that Lio has several capabilities making it ideal for a nursing home environment.
For instance, with posture recognition, it can detect if someone is lying on the ground.
“The possibilities are endless. We’re about to add more applications,” Zwilling said. “The biggest challenge for a service robot is to interact with humans in everyday environments in a natural way.”
Tortsen Kroger, head of intelligent process automation and robotics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, pointed to the importance of AI and big data.
“The benefits that we see today are those that come through the subfield of artificial intelligence [and] machine learning,” he said. “The most important thing at this point is actually the data. Unfortunately, in many cases, we do not have enough. It is also very difficult to gather. For this, it is simply important to create standards in order to create this data … and to allow new applications.”
“Ultimately, data collection and analysis of data is used to improve my product quality, identify weak spots, and then to correct and improve,” added Farid Nasimzada, product manager, research and development software at Teamtechnik. “Today, I just need a tool that supports me. It takes a lot of time to carry out such analysis manually.”
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Even with cobots and AI, people still needed
AI is also an important element of the growth of collaborative robots, which are growing in popularity. The global market for cobots will reach $6.77 billion by 2025, predicts Grand View Research Inc.
“There has been a shift in the technology in the robots,” said Peter Nadolny Madsen, chief technology officer of Purple Robotics ApS. “They’ve come from the big, heavy robots that you put in a cell to these collaborative robots that are easy to set up.”
“You cannot have a project for two months that it takes you to get the tooling set up and to get everything right,” he said. “So we need to lower the barrier for the setup, the tooling for the entire application, rather than just the robot.”
Purple Robotics was founded by engineers from cobot leader Universal Robots A/S, and it recently announced the U.S. distribution of “the world’s first dual electrical vacuum gripper.”
“There are many new technologies one must now bring together with classical robotics,” explained Nadolny Madsen in reference to robot intelligence and swarming controls. “There are a lot of creative minds that have a lot of ideas and that are advancing robotics. Intelligent grouping systems are now essential in human-robot collaboration.”
“In the next few years, we will see that man and machine are getting closer, added Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of VDMA Robotics and Automation. “The processes are being re-defined, re-invented. Man and machine are collaborating more intelligently. That can already be see today, and that will prevail over the next five years.
“With the new automation that combines people and machines better so that everyone can play to their strengths, people are working more like humans and less like machines,” he added. “I believe that work in the future will be better than it is today.”
As a result of the latest developments in robot intelligence and collaboration, automation is penetrating deeper into the business ecosystem, said people at Automatica.
“Robotics will not only happen in large-scale industry, but will increasingly move into medium-sized businesses,” said Franz Loseph Pschierer, Bavarian state minister of economic affairs. “That is important because these medium-sized businesses are suppliers to large companies. Those who do not join in will ultimately lose market share.”