Robotics technology has created many never-before-seen applications over the last decade. But even now, people still easily expect more than what a robot is actually capable of. To shorten the cognition gap, robots need to be more intelligent, flexible and safe, which is one of the challenges I have been researching and working on for more than 10 years. This article discusses the limitations of existing technology and introduces the concept of adaptive robots, which I believe to be the right direction a robot should evolve towards.
The limits of existing robots
Industrial robots have been used to automate all kinds of production lines for more than 60 years. Traditional industrial robots are designed for fast and precise position control. They are perfect for tasks that can be fully described as a trajectory – for example, moving an object from point A to point B, cutting a circle on a metal part, painting a car shell, etc.
For tasks like these, robots are far more capable than humans in terms of speed and accuracy, thanks to their well-developed hardware and control system.
However, there are three major limitations with these robots:
- Safety — These robots are totally focused on finishing their programmed job, and are ignorant of the potential hazard they pose to people that may be around them. Usually, these industrial robots must be guarded by safety cages while they’re working, but accidents can still happen.
- Deployment — It typically requires robotic application engineers to program the sequence and trajectory of their desired motion in a specific language, so as to connect robots with the production line that they will be working on.
- Limited achievable tasks — By design, they can only complete a limited set of tasks that require only position control and a pre-defined trajectory. There are still many tasks that are too challenging for these robots, such as polishing on complex surfaces, assembling complicated parts with tight tolerance, or interactive tasks in open environments.
With the understanding of these issues, the idea of collaborative robots (also called “cobots”) was brought out in the late 1990s. The idea is certainly trending in recent years, with traditional industrial arm companies like KUKA, ABB, and Fanuc launching their own cobots, and collaborative robot companies like Universal Robots, Rethink, and Franka gaining in popularity. According to MarketsandMarkets research, the collaborative robot market is expected to grow from $710 million in 2018 to $12.3 billion by 2025, at a compound annual growth rate of 50.31% during the forecast period. To overcome the shortcomings of traditional industrial robots, collaborative robots are designed to achieve safety, simplify deployment and programming, and establish collaboration workflow with human beings.
Unfortunately, Rethink Robotics, the pioneering creator of collaborative robots, closed its doors last October (the brand lives on with Hahn Group), instigating a discussion across the industry about the value of cobot. Are they as useful as they are expected to be? Is there a truly scalable product market segment? Do manufacturers really want to pay for them?
To achieve collaboration, cobots typically need to sacrifice performance in specs, including payload, velocity limit, position accuracy, and so on. They still cannot be easily deployed by non-professionals, but rather rely on integrators with more advanced skills. The fact that they need collaboration with humans to get the difficult work done is viewed as undesirable by the manufacturing industry.
So how can we truly take the flexibility and intelligence of robots to the next level?
What defines an adaptive robot?
With these contexts, the next-generation robot must evolve beyond the concept of “collaborative” to tackle the problems at root.
- It should have intrinsic safety and performance without compromise;
- It should learn and accomplish new tasks just like an apprentice;
- It should have the capability to perform tasks that traditional robots are not capable of – there are increasing demands to automate such tasks due to labor shortages and harmful work environments.
A robotic arm that meets all these requirements must greatly adapt to complicated environments and intricate tasks. The next generation robot is therefore defined as “Adaptive Robot”.
“Adaptive” is the word that precisely describes the characteristics of the new generation robot. Traditional robots work without adaptability: parts must be at a fixed position and orientation; no disturbance is allowed while at work.
Having computer vision does add a bit flexibility, but requires high detection precision and well-designed lighting conditions, making deploying and optimizing vision systems on each production line painful and time-consuming. With collision detection implemented, the robot will immediately stop whatever job it is doing instead of adapting to the unmodeled interactions.