Industrial robots get lots done, but they're expensive, dangerous and hard to program. That's why roboticists are turning to cobots - collaborative robots made to work alongside us and, perhaps one day, in our homes. "We are trying to make a support-service robot for people who can't support themselves or leave home," explains Simon Haddadin, co-founder of Munich-based Franka Emika.
The lightweight, three-kilogram frames of Franka Emika's cobots mean they can safely work in the same building as humans and will stop automatically if they come into close contact with one. "It basically means it has a sense of touch along the entire structure," Haddadin says. Programming is handled through an app, so even non-engineers can ask the cobots to do complex actions, which can be replicated through the cloud to another of the firm's cobots.
With seven degrees of freedom and a reach radius of 85cm and 0.1mm accuracy, they are well-equipped to perform tasks such as painting, screwing and packaging - even playing a board game. "I could have the ability to help my grandfather at home. Even though I'm not physically there, the cobot can copy my tasks, whether that is playing a game of chess or making him some food," Haddadin explains.
With such a wide range of skills at their disposal, will this speed up the robot-worker evolution? Haddadin thinks not: "Franka's bots were designed to be used alongside humans. We call this human-centred robotics."
Founded in 2016, Franka Emika sold 200 research versions of its cobot in the first four weeks of 2017, for €16,500 (£14,000) each. "Recently, we showed it how to open and close plastic bags and use cable ties," he says, "This was previously considered to be impossible for robotic systems." WIRED will place an immediate order for any model that can take the bins out…
The Swiss firm has created YuMi, which has two arms designed for assembling small parts. Its algorithms ensure it can stop milliseconds before a collision
Switzerland-based ABB Robotics has developed YuMi, a dual-armed cobot designed for small parts assembly. Instead of sensors, the cobot uses real time algorithms to ensure it can stop within milliseconds before a collision. Head of Product Management, Hui Zhang, says this frees up workers to concentrate on cognitive tasks rather than the dirty, dangerous jobs associated with manual assembly. He says the future will see cobots as commonplace, “just as finding a computer on every employee's’ desk has become the norm.”
The Danish company makes three robo-arms designed to work alongside humans. They can perform precise tasks such as icing a name on a cake
The lightweight frames of Universal Robots’ cobots – the biggest weighs 28.9 kilograms – are designed to work seamlessly alongside humans. “I’ve seen a birthday cake made by a human but the robot was doing the personal touch of writing the child’s name on the cake,” says chief technology officer Esben Østergaard. Universal Robots, based in Odense, Denmark, has seen impressive growth since it was founded in 2005: in 2015, it sold 4,000 robots, with revenue close to $100 (£79) million; in 2016, 9,000 with a revenue of $200 (£158) million.