A Robotics & Automation Outlook

Looking ahead, perhaps the most exciting new development emerging within the robotics and automation ecosphere is the buildout and implementation of 5G wireless networks. As of June 2020, according to Bloomberg Intelligence and Ookla, more than 6,000 cities in 27 countries have limited commercial availability of this robust new service, with the greatest concentration in the US, China, and South Korea. The 5G footprint is expected to double over the next year. The implications of this for robotics and automation solutions providers is immense.

For starters, 5G enables service providers to guarantee low latency and high reliability for safety-critical applications. In addition, 5G delivers massive connectivity, supporting a much higher density of connected devices, so robots and process automation systems can scale out effectively. Finally, 5G delivers ‘edge computing’ capabilities by supporting flexible, distributed, cloud-centric networking.

This will make it possible for the processing to be moved outside of the robots, making them less complex. Using the edge cloud, robots can now be controlled and re-programmed remotely to assist everywhere from hospitals to factories. Robots will thus develop greater autonomy as time-sensitive networking via 5G connects them to intelligence in the edge cloud. This will open up more opportunity for them to undertake hazardous and repetitive tasks. Sensors can gather data to create ‘digital twins’, used to optimize every process.

5G wireless infrastructure will facilitate a revolution in artificial intelligence. Highly reliable, low-latency networks will allow service providers to enable robots on production lines to undertake multiple tasks with remote configuration of programmable logic controllers. In industrial processes, automation systems can be used to help with quality control, using vision processing and machine learning in the cloud. In hospitals, collaborative robots can guide patients or deliver medicines, and be managed centrally as a fleet. 5G will facilitate ‘Connectivity’, the second stage in the development path that will allow industries to evolve to the point that they can achieve their full potential.

In a way, this development constitutes the dawn of a fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0). One of the most interesting aspects of the fourth industrial revolution is the emergence of human-robot cooperation. The present and future challenge is to develop robots that can support human workers in a meaningful way to perform manipulation and assembly tasks according to a production program. A robot that works close to a human worker must interact safely and be able to ‘understand’ and interpret direct user commands and support the worker in executing different actions.

Collaborative robotics is a novel paradigm of human-robot cooperation that is based on lightweight and flexible robots that are safe, smart, and easy to program, and are intended to operate in close symbiosis with human workers. Compared with the previous generation of robots, collaborative robots require sensory systems to detect and prevent collisions and impacts, as well as human-robot interfaces to understand and interpret human intentions. For these reasons, massive efforts in robotics and automation research are dedicated to the development of sensory skins and proximity sensors, and to the design of novel interfaces that enable different kinds of commands from the user to the robot.

Cooperation between humans and intelligent machines is a new reality that will have a profound effect on both industry and society in the years ahead. Already today, it is possible to leverage a combination of human wisdom and intuition together with the strong elaboration capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning to create solutions that provide a high level of industrial automation. The factory of the future will be realized through the digitization of the manufacturing process and plants, which will be enabled by 5G networks and all of their building blocks.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the strengths of those early adopters, who had the courage and foresight to invest heavily in robotics and automation solutions, and likewise exposed the weakness of those who did not. This realization has the potential to accelerate capital budgeting plans and the deployment of new automation solutions across a multiplicity of industrial verticals and perhaps unveil some previously untapped end-markets. In short, the future is now.

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