By definition, collaborative robots are designed to be safer to operate around humans. Thanks to their smaller scale, affordability, and flexibility, cobots offer the benefits of industrial automation to new markets, including at small and midsize enterprises.
Cobot arms, compliant grippers, and mobile platforms equipped with collision-avoidance capabilities take robots from inside fenced work cells to production lines and other venues. Better sensors and deep learning are also enabling new uses.
Here are some unconventional examples of how collaborative robots can serve in areas beyond manufacturing, pick-and-place operations, and machine tending.
Collaborative robots to pick plants
The GROWBOT (Grower-Reprogrammable Robot for Ornamental Plant Production Tasks) project at King’s College London is using a Sawyer cobot arm to help greenhouse workers pick plants. GROWBOT is intended to let non- expert users work with robots for repetitive tasks and to help relieve shortages of seasonal labor. It uses machine learning to flexibly automate the handling of seedlings, herbs, and other plants.
“Handling plants involves a great amount of uncertainty in sensing, and there’s a reasonably high performance requirement in terms of throughput,” said Aran Sena, a postgraduate student at King’s College London. “Additionally, growers typically will have several varieties in production to meet consumer demands in relatively small batch sizes, and [they] will have different requirements for packaging and presentation for each consumer – a challenge which can come up even in high-volume production — adding further challenges to automation.”
Sena said Rethink’s software developer’s kit and foundation in the Robot Operating System made Sawyer a good fit for the project. Although Rethink Robotics shut down last year, HAHN Group is continuing support.
Do you want fries with that?
As robots move from food processing into restaurants, the equipment must still be clean, consistent, and efficient. Miso Robotics’ Flippy uses a cobot arm with a variety of end-of-arm tools, its Miso AI platform, and cloud-based monitoring functions.
The burger-flipping robot can work on a grill or fryer, comply with OSHA and food-safety standards, and run for up to 100,000 hours of continuous uptime, according to the company.
“While our systems are designed to work with just about any six-axis robotic arm, we are currently using Fanuc North America arms,” said David Zito, co-founder and CEO of Miso Robotics. “They are made collaborative via our unique design made specifically for commercial kitchen work.”
Getting served by cobot bartenders, baristas
Aside from demonstrations of industrial robots at trade shows such as CES, cobot arms mixing drinks was a novelty. Not anymore.
Royal Caribbean Cruises has robot bartenders on several ships, and several hotels and pubs worldwide have used robot bartenders. (To be fair, some are caged off to avoid broken glass or drunk patrons.)
Makr Shakr, which provides the robot bartenders to Royal Caribbean, uses KUKA arms.
Even if you’re not nursing a hangover, at a Café X kiosk in Hong Kong or San Francisco, you can get a coffee made by a Mitsubishi cobot. This is arguably the most public-facing collaborative robot application, but at $25,000, the arm won’t be on household kitchen counters anytime soon.
Surgery with cobots
Robots for assisting or conducting surgical procedures are usually highly specialized. They also need to comply with strict regulations, meet high performance requirements, and often force surgeons to get more training.
Researchers at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) are developing “Scoliobot” for precise spinal surgery. They are currently working on 3D-printed models with two UR5 cobots from Universal Robots. The team is also using augmented reality to provide surgeons with live feedback.
One robot arm, dubbed the Datum Robot, would follow a patient’s spine and collect data on how he or she moves. The other, called the Tooling Robot, would automatically adjust to drill holes itself for realignment rods to be placed in vertebrae.
“It is paramount that spinal procedures are carried out with total accuracy in order to minimize what can be substantial risks to a patient,” said Prof. Bronek Boszczyk, head of spinal surgery at Benedictus Krankenhaus Tutzing and visiting professor at NTU. “This technology has the potential to minimize those risks by performing a key part of the operation with accuracy which cannot be achieved by a human hand.”
Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing company, uses a UR3 arm as part of its Robotic Copilot concept. The goal is “to create a portable and extensible hardware and software toolbox introducing of new levels of automation across a wide variety of military and civilian aircraft that ultimately reduce crew requirements.”
The Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, would combine sensors, a tablet interface for pilots, and flight-control and mission software. The cobot enables it to interact with cockpit controls designed for human pilots.
ALIAS is intended to help pilots perform at peak ability, so that they’re not bored or overtaxed. Another design goal is that training it to a new aircraft would take only a month.
Where will collaborative robots go next?
The global market for collaborative robots will grow from $710 million in 2018 to $12.3 billion in 2025, predicts Markets and Markets. While much of that growth will continue in automotive, electronics, and other manufacturing, the safety and flexibility collaborative robots will bring robotics to an ever-wider range of users.
Just as machine shops today have lathes, drill presses, and grinders, it’s not too great a stretch to imagine them having cobot arms. Kitchens, coffeeshops, and cockpits are only the beginning.