Next-generation robots promise to drive workplace revolution

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Robotic technologies have moved a long way forward since Leonardo Da Vinci first sketched his mechanical knight in 1459. Today robots aren’t just coming, they are already here and the next-generation of automation is going to be smart enough to do more than ever before, impacting you and your business.

We’re already familiar with first generation robots.  These automated systems were deployed in manufacturing and beyond, but tended to be highly expensive and difficult to reprogram for other tasks. They were great for mass production, but the hassle and expense of reprogramming these machines for other users meant they were of limited use.

Things have changed. Today’s next generation robots combine automation with the kind of data-driven intelligence you can see in semantic learning systems like IBM’s Watson or Microsoft AIX. Frost & Sullivan says AI-controlled assembly and production lines will soon become the norm. These self-learning machines will pick up some of the jobs humans just can’t, won’t or should not do, and you can already see some key examples of this, even in military deployments.

Recycling

AMP Robotics founder, Matanya Horowitz, notes working conditions for human employees in the recycling sector are “dull, dirty and dangerous”, meaning “recycling is ripe for this technology.” ZenRobotics in Finland already offers what it calls the “first commercially available robotic waste sorting system”. This vision is a little like the recycling robots you find in Wall-E.  We’ve already seen automated recycling robots on the streets. Segway robot hybrid Dustbot was deployed for a short period in Italy in 2009, when it cleaned trash off the street and roaming trash can, PUSH, encouraged visitors to tidy up their trash at Disney World in 2014.

While such intelligent street cleaners may be part of the future smart city, it’s likely to be at the expense of low skilled workers currently occupying such roles.

Exploration

Intelligent machines can roam terrain humans just can’t explore, such as under the sea, in the air or in dangerous environments. Robotics are already being used in oil and gas exploration. Companies such as Honeybee Robotics, Liquid Robotics, Bluefin Robotics Corp. and Deep Ocean Engineering Inc. are developing a range of automated systems.

These systems include intelligent machines capable of exploration deep under the ocean; small maintenance droids developed to identify and repair faults in sub-sea pipelines; and systems designed to monitor and manage marine biology. The global underwater robots market is set to grow at a CAGR of 6.92 per cent over the period 2014-2019, according to Research and Markets.

“The growing need for underwater robotics for ocean surveillance in the field of scientific research has forced several market vendors and research institutions to develop perpetual underwater robotics for continuous surveillance,” the analyst said. These devices are also driving innovation in other sectors, “Perpetual underwater robotics have the ability to refuel themselves and are powered by natural, renewable, and ocean thermal energy,” Research and Markets explained.

Logistics and farming

Robots will also play a big part in the future of logistics and distribution. Intelligent connected systems can monitor in-store product levels and customer demand in order to automatically place orders at central warehouses. Self-driving autonomous vehicles such as those being developed by Google, Apple or Drive.ai will interact with almost completely automated distribution and warehousing systems such as that at London Gateway. Of course, smart distribution will have huge impact on the evolution of smart cities.

Similar solutions are already in play for agriculture, from M2M-systems to attend herds to automated systems for long-range farm management or fisheries control.

Medical

Intelligent machines will inevitably have huge impact on the medical and health sector with technologies for minimally invasive surgery already in use and development. Robotics will also impact the preparation and transport of medicines, patient rehabilitation and support services provision for senior citizens and recovering patients with physical injuries. A French company called Aldebaran has been working on robots to help assist elderly, disabled or ill patients retain some autonomy since 2009.

All of these sectors and more will be transformed by the rise of smart machines. Some estimates claim that by 2025 such advanced robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) could have a, “worldwide economic impact of $1.7 trillion to $4.5 trillion annually,” according to the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.

This is driving significant investment. Grishin Robotics recently announced a new $100 million fund focused on connected devices, collaborative and material-handling robots, AI and data analytics, and industrial-scale Internet of Things.

All of this activity will have a transformational impact on the world and how we live, generating much fear of technology-induced joblessness. Speaking last year, Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director-General at the European Commission, DG CONNECT addressed concerns robots could replace jobs in large numbers. “There is clear information that robots don’t steal jobs, we have to make this information freely available to all stakeholders,” he said.

The future looks bright for robots, even if their impact on society is not yet fully understood. We look forward to what it holds.

Orange Business Services will attend the forthcoming InnoRobo event in Paris, France, where the world’s leading experts in robotics and associated technologies will share their ideas at this exciting time.