Because I am interested in ICT and digitalization, I find it fascinating to look into the trend of automation and the enabling technology – robotics. I want to understand how value is created and also assess when connectivity will be an integral part of the solutions so that we as an IoT industry can prepare the best support.
Today, robotics is a rapidly growing field and new robots serve various practical purposes, whether domestically, commercially, or militarily. Many robots are built to do jobs that are hazardous to people, such as defusing bombs, finding survivors in unstable ruins, and exploring mines and shipwrecks. And of course, robots are key in the manufacturing industry as part of Industry 4.0.
Robotics has been around for half a century
If you use the definition as “Robots are machines that can substitute humans and replicate human actions” robotics is nothing new. In the early 1970s, the first full-scale humanoid intelligent robot and first android was introduced – WATBOT-1.
WATBOT-1’s limb control system allowed it to walk with its lower limbs, as well as to grip and transport objects with hands, using tactile sensors. Its vision system allowed it to measure distances and directions to objects using external receptors, artificial eyes, and ears. And its conversation system allowed it to communicate with a person in Japanese, using an artificial mouth.
4 disruptive robotic revolutions
The concepts of robots has since evolved and in 2016 the researchers Boesl and Liepert presented the concept of the ‘4 Robotic Revolutions’ – disruptive waves of evolution in robotics and automation and their impact on society, the economy, and other areas of human life. For me, being outside the automation industry, it is a useful concept to understand relevant aspects of robotics.
So, what are these disruptive waves?
- The first Robotic Revolution has already happened. It is what the industry has been doing for more than 40 years: robot-based automation: how to bolt, weld, and glue a car together as fast as possible. The robots are fast, efficient, and have high repetitive accuracy but are also big and dangerous. This required them to be shielded off from human workers by safety fences like animals in a zoo
- Adding sensitive and safe
The second wave started very recently, and it introduced sensitive and safe robot-based automation. Both the sensitive and safe robotic solutions have been enabled by innovations in the field of sensors and control, providing feasible and affordable components. A robot that feels even the slightest external forces can complete a whole set of new tasks that could not be automated before. This means the robots can leave the “zoo” and we will have to think of how to make machines and workers coexist and even cooperate on difficult and complex tasks. The industry talks about collaborative robots – so called Cobots
- Adding mobility
The next paradigm shift will occur when sensitive and safe robotic systems become mobile. That mobility will be supported by wireless connectivity, which will enable the robot to be steered, upgraded, etc. remotely. For the first time the workpiece will not be required to come to the robot – instead, the robot will go to the workpiece. This is nothing revolutionary for us humans and some of you might argue it already exists in, for example, logistics. But today these systems are not 100% safe, and mobile robots need to distance from humans via annoying sounds or light or in separate lanes. One fun example of this is home delivery company Foodora’s droid Doora delivering food using 5G connectivity in Stockholm. Even if more systems are produced and the technology evolves, these mobile robotic systems will still be too expensive for most people to own for personal use, so most will be used in industrial applications.
But there is one specific use case that might change things. Solutions for home assisted living will drive the roll out volume as the cost for a “home assistant” is much lower than a hospital bed – and this has already started. According to the International Federation of Robotics World Robotics 2018 Service Robots report, medical robot sales increased 73% in 2017 over 2016, accounting for 2.7% of all professional service robot sales. This is a great example of how ICT can solve the issue of caring for ageing populations
- Adding perceptive and cognitive
The fourth Robotic Revolution is perceptive and cognitive, mobile, sensitive, safe robot-based automation and it is all about how systems are programmed, or better yet, commanded. In this fourth wave, robots will start to perceive their environment. They will reason based on information provided and may one day even be able to ‘understand’ what they are doing, instead of being programmed to repeat basic tasks. This will put even tougher requirements on connectivity to handle large amounts of data with low latency. Object recognition, for example, is still a very challenging problem that requires a multitude of sensors, controlled environmental variables, and amounts of computing power. This is one reason why self-driving cars have not yet arrived on our streets, are still kept separate, or with a driver standing by to take over manual drive.
When will we see Generation R?
My kids, born in the 1990s and 2000s, are digital natives. They cannot imagine life without internet access, 24/7 online service, or social media. When my kids were small, we had to invent the Swedish word “otecknad” (unanimated) for films with living actors, which before had been the norm, while for my children animated children’s films were the new norm. Will they, or perhaps their children, be the first Generation ‘R’ (Robotics)” that will have no fear of all forms of robotic and automated systems – self driving cars, autonomous service robots, automatized logistics, robotics in retail, etc.? Will they not be afraid the robots will take their jobs? When will we start to use the word “unautomated” as it will make more sense the word manual?
Business Development Manager