At first glance, some industries don’t seem like they could benefit from robots, whether the work is too delicate or where full automation is impractical. But in recent years, robots have shifted in some of their style to reach into new areas. For example, in manufacturing some companies are exploring smaller robots that team up with human workers to make jobs safer and more efficient.
Changes like these have drastically improved several other industries. Here’s a look at five industries where we’ve seen some drastic disruption.
Depending on the crop, agriculture demands farmers perform repetitious tasks, such as weeding, harvesting or spraying pesticide, entirely by hand. Traditional farming methods are struggling to keep up with modern demand for crops and animal products.
Drones and robots are being used in agricultural to assist human workers and make tasks that were previously difficult or tedious much more efficient. The tasks aren’t always the ones you would think needed automating.
Some robots, like the Potting Robot developed by HETO Agrotechnics, simply move large amounts of potted plants from one place in a nursery to another. The robots need to be gentle enough to avoid damaging the plants or the ceramic pots. While not particularly flashy, robots like these save workers from moving hundreds of potted plants by hand.
Other agriculture robots marry advancements in smart technology with robotics to automate environmental conditions. Smart greenhouses use robots and Internet of Things (or IoT) sensors to near-completely automate all the processes needed to keep a greenhouse climate-controlled and the plants inside healthy.
Most agricultural robots are designed to assist farmers with crop growing, but some new robots are being used to help livestock farmers. A robot being developed at the University of Sydney will assist farmers with shepherding and herding, as well as monitoring their flock.
While mining employs around one percent of the global workforce, it’s responsible for nearly 8% of workplace fatalities. Despite advances in mining safety technology, mining remains the most dangerous occupation in the world, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Robotics may soon change this.
In the European Union, a push for sustainable sourcing of raw materials has led scientists and industry officials there to revisit abandoned mines. Even a copper mine stripped of that element may be rich in materials needed in new technology — rare earth elements that are found throughout the Earth’s crust, but rarely in large enough quantities to be worth mining.
Many of these abandoned mines are structurally unsound or flooded. It would be possible for human divers to enter the mine and evaluate, but it would also be incredibly dangerous. Most companies — and divers — aren’t interested in the risk. But the need for sustainably-sourced rare earth metals remains.
Enter the UX-1, a robot that navigates flooded mines and uses an array of sensors to detect rare minerals and determine if abandoned mines could be worth re-opening. It’s new technology but the team behind the UX-1 have already tested it in two different mines in Europe. In the second test, the robot was completely autonomous — not controlled by a human pilot — and was able to navigate water and identify minerals using a multispectral camera.
But while new robots may reduce the risk to life posed by mining, they won’t eliminate it just yet. Mining technology isn’t robust enough to fully automate mines, and won’t be any time soon despite major advances. For the near future, human workers will still be needed.
But the robots being developed for use in mines will make conditions for these workers much, much safer.
Because of the precise and high-risk nature of the work, robots have been much slower to enter healthcare compared to other fields. (Robots used in healthcare also need to be approved by the FDA.) And most tasks performed by nurses, janitorial staff and hospital administrators can’t be automated — either the task is too complicated or open-ended, or requires a certain human touch. Surgeons, however, have benefited hugely from developments in surgical robotics.
The most famous cobot used in health care is Intuitive’s da Vinci Surgical System. A surgeon controls the system from a console, usually in the same room as the patient. The system allows the surgeon to make hyper-precise incisions and reach places that would be difficult without robotic assistance. It’s a form of minimally-invasive surgery called laparoscopy.
Compared to standard open surgery, laparoscopy carries less risk of bleeding during and after the surgery, as well as a reduced chance that major organs are exposed to contaminants.
More than 4,000 units of the da Vinci System have been installed in hospitals around the world. But the tech doesn’t come cheap — at nearly $2 million, the da Vinci Surgery System is too expensive for many hospitals.
Research also hasn’t shown conclusively whether or not the da Vinci System is more or less effective than a surgeon without the system — the system has, however, been confirmed to reduce the time patients needed to recover after surgery.
Aside from the da Vinci System, there are a number of other cobots being used in surgery. One example is the AOT’s CARLO, which uses lasers to cut bone without physical contact.
Manufacturing is one field that robots have probably managed to penetrate especially deeply — already, nearly 60% of manufacturers are using some kind of robotics technology to make the manufacturing process more efficient.
In highly-advanced factories, like Tesla’s Gigafactory, autonomous indoor vehicles deliver goods from workstation to workstation without human assistance.
As with other industries, new collaborative robots, or cobots, don’t replace workers — instead, they make workers more efficient by assisting them with difficult or repetitious tasks. With the help of technology like Robotic Processing Automation (or RPA), some of these cobots can act like an extra worker in the manufacturing chain — double-checking capacitors or auto-filling invoices.
A tighter labor market is prompting warehouse managers to turn more and more to automated systems. Like in most other industries, these robots aren’t going to replace people — the “lights-out” warehouse, one where no human workers are required for the warehouse to function, isn’t seen as feasible with current technology.
Instead, the new robots being brought to warehousing are primarily people-helpers. The robots mostly work with pickers, the workers that select items from storage and prepare them for shipment. These robots will navigate the warehouse floor, select the items requested and deliver them to the pickers. Warehouse managers hope that these robots will cut down most or nearly all of the walking that pickers have to do, leaving them more time to ready items for shipment.
Automation is also being used to reduce human error. Automated inventory systems can help make counts more accurate and examine inventory trends to prepare for future demand.
Improving industry with robots
Robots are radically changing how we work by reducing the risks faced by human workers and reducing the amount of work that they need to perform.
Robots free up workers to perform other tasks, or can replace human workers in highly dangerous environments. Collaborative robots work with humans to make highly-precise tasks easier than every before.
The robotics industry continues to grow year after year, and even industries that seem impossible to automate are benefiting from advances in robotics technology.
In the future, it may be completely normal for robots to work alongside humans workers in all fields — not replacing them, but lightening the burden of work.