A tale as old as time is our obsession with machines. Based on the notion that our bodies are essentially (complex) machines, scientists and engineers have been trying to overcome the limits of our bodies by creating robots that are like us, or even better, since time immemorial.
Fast-forward to present day, and in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Robotics is one of the buzz-words we are most intrigued by. Advances in a wide range of fields such as computer science, materials and energy storage have enabled new horizons in what constitutes the core of Robotics, i.e. the performance of autonomous and/or automatic tasks, involving processes and actions. Many recognise the value robotic technology can add, whether to an impeccable surgical tool or precise watch assembly line, a streamlined process or sustainable practice, a safe workspace or profitable company.
The year ahead will witness the impact on the world at large of some of the most interesting trends that we are seeing right now, such as:
Here comes the Co-bot – A team of man and machine
Collaborative robots, or “Co-bots” are intended for daily interaction with their human operators and can be designed to carry out dull, dirty and even dangerous tasks, freeing up time for us to attend to higher ranking tasks. They are relatively easy to set up, safe and cost-effective; making them an attractive option for many companies trying to balance out increasing cost of labour and shrinking workforce.
Air-Cobot, a French research and development project, is developing a mobile robot on wheels able to oversee aircraft maintenance operations in collaboration with its human supervisor. Pioneers in their field are Planys Technologies, an Indian company that provides submersible inspection using remotely operated robotic vehicles. Also making waves: the LarvalBot. A project funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation aimed at restoring corals. The robot essentially picks up the coral spawn and distributes it across damaged reefs, hoping to bring them back to their former glory.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – All systems go
While Co-bots carry out physical tasks on-site, RPA tools perform predictable and repetitive office processes. These robots only “exist” as software systems and can move between different IT applications. Think of them as invisible little helpers that input, check and update far quicker and more efficiently than a person, or a team, ever could. Often cross-linked to machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), such as chatbots, some of these self-learning robots can learn the job while they do it.
Management consultancy giants Accenture, Deloitte and KPMG, amongst others, have all been helping banks automate their internal systems, for example to raise invoices or acknowledge emails. RPA is also of interest to many companies reliant on inflexible, legacy systems.
Computerised cars – Look mum, no hands!
“KITT-style” computer-car hybrids seem no longer a far-fetched fantasy. Major players such as Apple, Uber, and BMW are evidently vying for pole position. Even if you still want to drive yourself, with 5G reaching us this year, a computerised driving experience will be hard to avoid. The UK government has stated it wants autonomous cars to be in use commercially by 2021: ambitious perhaps but with efforts to make driverless cars safer and environmentally friendly, this plan will appeal to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
The HumanDrive project plans to send a driverless car on a 200-mile journey across the UK this year equipped with sensors, cameras and AI technology, the car will attempt to learn how to drive like the best human driver possibly could, aiming to keep its passengers safe at all times. UK based firm Addison Lee has partnered with Oxbotica and plans to implement commercial applications of self-driving vehicles in London already from 2021, tapping into the connected autonomous vehicle technology market expected to be worth £28 billion in the UK by 2035.
You’ve got mail - Automated delivery via drones and robots
Drones are already used in a variety of sectors; from agriculture to transport to photography. But it is the retail sector that is particularly smitten with the idea of delivery drones, driven by the demand for even faster, same-day delivery options. Imagine a world where Alexa placed your takeaway order, your bank’s RPA bot paid for it and a driverless Uber car sent it your way with a drone in its boot to fly through your kitchen window. Well, maybe not quite like that, but it may not be far off.
US robot maker Boston Dynamics has announced that it plans to put its four-legged Spot Mini robot on sale to the public this year, hailing 2019 as the year in which legged robots finally take off. And we have all seen humanoid robot Atlas from the same company practising parkour on YouTube!
Robotics is a truly multidisciplinary theme currently undergoing renaissance. At Harvard, the Biodesign Lab is pioneering wearable robots in the shape of robotic gloves and other soft exosuits. These robots can alleviate physical burdens, for example for firefighters, factory workers, soldiers or those differently able. The Microrobotic Lab is researching life-inspired microrobots such as the RoboBee, a flying micro-bot that is half the size of a paper clip and weigh less than one tenth of a gram. These machines could have important roles in search and surveillance, climate monitoring, or in the medical field. However, robots still have some way to go to convince us they can keep us safe, help us do our jobs better and take on tasks we are happy to delegate to them reliably.
The latest generation of intelligent robotic technology will, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), make up 34% of all industrial robot sales by 2025, making it the fastest growing trend in Robotics.
We expect Robotics to be a very prominent technology sector for Intellectual Property in future. 120,000 Robotics-related patent documents were published in the 10 years from 2004 to 2013, according to the UK Intellectual Property Office Informatics Team, tripling in rate from 2004 to 2013. This trend is expected to continue, or even pick up pace.
Many of us have grown up under the good auspices of mechanical super heroes such as Goldrake, Mazinger and Jeeg. Super powerful extensions to the hearts and souls of their human pilots (Daisuke, Koji and Hiroshi, respectively) they’ve circled the skies to protect our planet from evil. The dream team that is man and machine, is no longer just a fantasy.