Meet Emili, Sawyer, ALIAS and SWIFTI

Cobots: Cooperation between humans and machines

You may have already heard of “cobots” – collaborative robots – in warehouses or industrial production. But do you also know about the cobots working as gardeners, baristas or co-pilots? Since COVID-19, the possible uses and benefits of collaborative robots have grown even more: from cobots functioning as nurses to test stations managed by cobots.

Increasing use of cobots, especially in Asia

Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) show a steady rise in the worldwide use of cobots in factories and workshops. On a global level, 99 cobots are now in use for every 10,000 human employees. In China, there are actually 140 cobots per 10,000 employees and as many as 800 in South Korea. Another study performed in Europe, China and the United States found that 84% of all companies aim to increase the use of cobots in the next ten years, with 85% of them stating that COVID-19 was an accelerating factor in these investment plans. No wonder, since collaborative cobots can not only improve the quality and efficiency of the work but also increase workplace safety and facilitate social distancing.

Difference between robots and cobots

While industrial robots replace human workers, cobots are designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues. A cobot can help employees with work that might be too dangerous, strenuous or tedious for humans, thus creating a safer and more efficient workplace without replacing tasks that are associated with the actual manufacturing of a product.

In addition, cobots can generally be programmed more easily than industrial robots, since they can “learn” on the job. A factory worker can easily reprogram a cobot by moving the arm along the desired track. From there, the cobot will “remember” the new movement and be able to repeat it by itself. Due to their size and use in close proximity to people, cobots aren’t designed for heavy manufacturing; instead they are generally used in areas such as loading and unloading machines or picking the right parts for assembly.

Emili: Communication with gestures and facial expressions

In contrast to traditional robots, the operation of cobots is said to be much more intuitive. Such as that of “Emili” (Ergonomic, Mobile, Interactive Load Carrier for Intralogistics), for example, which was developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics, is controlled by gestures and “communicates” with facial expressions.

This is an autonomously rolling crate that has the exact dimensions of a small load carrier (SLC), which makes it easy to stack and transport. If it extends its undercarriage, however, it becomes a driverless transport vehicle (DTV). With a wearable unit that users carry on their bodies, they can wave Emili over to them and then – also through gestures – inform it of the desired working height to which its container should be raised. If necessary, it can also be operated via an app on a smartphone or AR glasses.

A friendly face makes it easier to collaborate

The small, crate-shaped cobot Emili is also equipped with an e-paper display on its front. This shows a stylized robot face that either smiles or looks sad, depending on the status. If Emili doesn’t understand a command, it indicates this with a puzzled face. If it needs to be serviced, it drops the corners of its mouth and then the user gets step-by-step instructions via an app on how to remedy the problem.

The idea might sound simple but it serves an important purpose, because in addition to the technology itself, it’s crucial to ensure acceptance and good collaboration between humans and machines. This is the only way to ensure that the technology can actually result in optimized workflows and improved quality of work for employees. The occasional “affectionate look” between people and machines certainly helps build “team spirit.”

Making coffee, picking plants, helping patients

The possible applications for cobots are virtually endless. By now, collaborative robots aren’t just used in industrial production and logistics but also in food services and medical facilities, for example. Developed by the German robotics company Rethink Robotics, “Sawyer” has a pretty diverse career. It works as a barista at the “Cobot Café” of the RobShare robot rental service and also helps greenhouse employees pick plants as part of “GROWBOT” (Grower-Reprogrammable Robot for Ornamental Plant Production Tasks) at King’s College in London.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Sawyer has even acted as a nurse. Jointly with the US Healthcare Association, select hospitals and the Cobot Team company, Rethink Robotics devised a solution in which Sawyer can be used as a medical assistant. Depending on the instrument readings, Sawyer can press the required buttons on the medical equipment, increase or reduce the air supplied by the artificial lung ventilator, press a button to call a doctor, and so on. This significantly reduces the time spent by doctors near infectious patients.

Cobot-operated COVID-19 test station

A company in Texas has designed an entire COVID-19 test station that is operated only by cobots. The automation of the testing process is expected to resolve the staffing shortage and thus enable more testing and faster test results. Together with the ARM Institute (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing), the company Wilder Systems from Austin, Texas established a complete robotic test system within five months. While a typical test lab of the same size can complete about 280 tests per day, the robotic system – with the same number of staff and PCR equipment – can handle about 2,000 tests per day, a seven-fold increase.

Cobot as co-pilot

Countless opportunities in the areas of logistics and transport are also still being explored. Freight transport by fully automated drones may still need a few years to mature, but a new robot innovation already offers potential for optimization: the cobot co-pilot. The Boeing company Aurora Flight Sciences has developed the solution Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) to relieve the human crew on airplanes. ALIAS consists of a UR3 robotic arm (made by the Danish company Universal Robotics) combined with a tablet interface with voice recognition for pilots as well as flight control and mission software. After several successful simulations, ALIAS has already been tested on real flights, such as in the Cessna Caravan helicopter.

They’re getting stronger and faster

Most recently, the Swedish-Swiss technology company ABB made headlines in logistics magazines with its new cobots GoFa and SWIFTI. ABB debuted its first cobot in 2015 in the form of YuMi, which is optionally available in a single- or double-arm version. Today YuMi works alongside people in factories, workshops and laboratories worldwide, handling tasks such as screwing and assembling components, manufacturing valves and USB sticks or evaluating COVID-19 tests in laboratories. While YuMi only had a lifting capacity of 0.5 kg, the new models GoFa and SWIFTI can lift 4.5 kg and 4 kg, respectively, thus enabling a wide range of new applications. ABB hopes that the cobots will now also be used in the areas of electronics, healthcare, consumer goods, logistics and the food and beverage industries.

The future of human-machine collaboration

The global cobot market is expected to grow rapidly in the near future. Although this industry also saw an 11.3 % drop in sales and a 5.7% reduction in order volume during the pandemic year 2020, the analysts of a study by Interact Analysis are projecting a V-shaped recovery. Despite all the turbulence, a growth of 20% is already expected in 2021 and a growth rate of 15-20% is expected to be maintained until 2028. More than 50% of all cobots were delivered to Asia in 2020 – which means that the faster recovery from the effects of COVID-19 in Asian countries is having a positive impact on the forecasts.

Whether the innovative machines represent a threat to jobs or instead help improve working conditions remains to be seen – the fact is that our new robotic colleagues will play an increasingly important role in everyday work and should certainly be taken into account when considering improvements in efficiency.

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