Making Sense of Environmentally-Aware Robots
The proliferation of new sensors continues to transform robots across industries and applications
Most descriptions of modern manufacturing facilities feature factory robots automating routine tasks with superlative accuracy. Unparalleled mechatronic solutions for robotic and drone applications have transformed manufacturing by producing major leaps in productivity and operational efficiency.
These early robots have grown in numbers as deployments have proven their precision and repeatability, making them ideally suited to handle unsafe, monotonous functions on manufacturing or assembly lines. First-generation robots on automotive lines are performing spot welding and painting applications. Initially very mechanical, robots now are evolving dramatically, thanks to the addition of environmentally-aware sensors that impact form factor and functionality.
Today’s robot designs focus more on functionality and ability to work safely alongside people in performing an ever-increasing array of responsibilities. The opportunity to install a variety of environmental sensors and collect vast amounts of data about what’s happening in that environment is transforming robotic applications across manufacturing and just about every industry sector, from aerospace and automotive to healthcare and retail.
For example, Badger Technologies, a product division of Jabil, is rolling out hundreds of multi-purpose, autonomous robots designed to improve grocery store operations. Equipped with multiple sensors, navigation systems, cameras and software, these robots traverse store aisles safely alongside shoppers and employees to scan floors for spills and other potential hazards while maintaining a “shelf’s-eye view” for missing, mispriced or misplaced inventory.
Real-Time Data Capture and Visibility
The fact that sensors have become so small, use very little power and are extremely economical opens the door to a growing list of data collection applications. Sensors are capable of capturing seemingly endless amounts of environmental and operational data. In grocery stores, for instance, a sensor-laden robot can be integrated into other in-store systems to monitor lighting, refrigeration, security and power.
Beyond automated factories and improved retail operations, robotics are enabling driverless cars, drones and remote surgical stations. For example, sensor-equipped drones can capture real-time data to support search-and-rescue, law enforcement and firefighting applications. In agriculture, drones with cameras as well as temperature and navigational sensors can identify irrigation and crop status while collecting data regarding ripeness and other crucial crop conditions. In manufacturing, every process step can be captured and retained for full traceability in keeping with stringent quality and process control requirements.
Extra Smarts with AI
As an enabling technology, environmentally-aware robots can empower emerging applications that blend robotics and artificial intelligence to deliver predictive and prescriptive analytics while driving actionable business insights. Artificial intelligence will reshape the role of robots in the future by applying deep-learning algorithms across robot populations connected to the cloud. Sharing all this data in real-time will enable faster, more agile decision making for an entire network of smart robots working in diverse environments.
Today, this constant collection, aggregation and sharing of data is fueling the creation of smart algorithms that support autonomous vehicle operations. In the future, low-cost sensors and advancements in computing and battery power, motors, cameras and navigation systems will reduce the cost of robots significantly. The result will be new classes of consumer, industrial, defense and aerospace robots capable of solving business and operational problems that haven’t yet been conceived.