Could you work with a robot?

07 January, 2016

A next generation robotics upsurge is underway. And it surrounds the transfer of the robot from its traditional role undertaking assembly line activities, into a new world where it may undertake varying tasks and have to work alongside human beings. The media seems to enjoy sensationalist headlines and therefore focuses on robots taking away human jobs or robots collaborating together at the expense of humans. But of far more interest and relevance is the possibility of collaboration between robots and humans.

Could you work with a robot? Or more importantly, could a robot work with you?


Haptics robot


The potential for human-robot collaboration demands rather different things of the robot than its traditional setting. Robots are no longer in safe environments, performing the same unvarying task over and over where their strong-points of speed, accuracy, and strength ensure their success. They are starting to move into semi-structured environments where they have to perform varying tasks and interoperate with different objects and most importantly humans.

For robots to be able to operate in this new world, they need to be highly aware of their surroundings and be able to collaborate. They may have to work remotely and therefore be optimized for low power environments. Similarly, in some of the areas, they are being envisaged, they are only viable at a certain price and so cost-effectiveness is key. To move into these varying worlds they also need to be relatively easy to use and not require extensive, specialist resources to make them workable.

The use of Kiva robots, in Amazon’s new fulfilment centres, is a good example of robots and humans co-working. Robots now operate alongside human workers in the warehouse in order to fulfil customer orders. With the advent of sales initiatives such as Black Friday, the huge surges in demand need to be met by flexible order fulfilment operations and the usage of this new generation of robots is allowing Amazon to do just this. Humans work alongside robots, safely and effectively.

All of this means that the role of sensor technology to help robots perceive their world through imaging, acoustics, and tactile-sensing is critical. Fortunately, sensor technology has been moving on significantly in the last few years and there are some very exciting developments predicted on the horizon.

The five technologies I’d like to introduce you to are:

Time of Flight cameras

Hyperspectral imaging

Retro-reflective communications

Inductive sensing

Tactile sensing