Missing colleagues in a work-from- home setting? A collaborative robot or cobot could take that place in a smart home, and it wouldn’t mind repetitive tasks all day.
By Tiana Cline
INSTEAD OF WALKING AROUND AND LOOKING FOR an information desk, a friendly robot who can communicate in multiple languages is making its way around an airport terminal, shopping center or hospital reception. And when arriving at a hotel, there’s now an AI-powered robo-concierge to assist you with everything from room service to check-in. It sounds far-fetched but cobots, or collaborative robots, are one of the fastest growing segments of industrial automation worldwide. According to Report Ocean insights, the global cobot market is expected to reach $4,925 million by 2030.
“Robotics and mechatronics are on the rise in Africa,” says Martine Solomon, a non-executive director at Forge Academy, a 4IR institution where cobot training programs are the norm.
“The inclusion of cobots into the modern workplace will do wonders for employees in the manufacturing industry wanting to increase their productivity, efficiencies and quality assurance. Cobots will not tire during physical activities and their concentration levels won’t drop. As a result, they make for an excellent partner on the job.”
Hotel Sky is the first African hotel chain to introduce robot staff. With locations both in Cape Town and Johannesburg, each property has a team of robots and Tony Maia, Bright Horse IT Automation’s founder, was tasked with sourcing Hotel Sky’s unique technology requirements.
“The robots work alongside their human colleagues but were never intended to replace them,” says Maia. “If people are inclined to stand in front of a robot and speak to a machine, they can play a very good concierge role… provided you have the patience as conversing with a robot is a little bit slower than a human.” Hotel Sky’s robots work in conjunction with a bespoke app that guests download upon arrival and use as a mobile keycard. While the robot staff do provide some entertainment value, they complement the workload of the staff by carrying bags, delivering room service and, for those who prefer to social distance, offer a safer alternative by limiting human-to- human communication. “There is a footprint of robotics in the logistics, education and healthcare sectors, especially when it comes to hygiene, but cobots definitely have a role to play in hospitality too,” he says.
One of the best use cases for cobots is their ability to pick up tasks that are either repetitive, become dull quickly, or too dangerous for human beings. Dwyka Mining Services, a pan-African mining technology company with offices in Tanzania, Ghana, Botswana and South Africa, recently introduced the enterprise version of Spot to the continent.
Spot Enterprise is an agile robot quadruped (similar to a dog, and yellow like a Labrador) made by Boston Dynamics which is used by the military, police and space organizations like NASA. Spot has become increasingly popular in the construction industry and is even used on oil rigs to sniff out dangerous gases. “To get people to do tasks repetitively, human beings by nature introduce error. These errors, ironically, make it more difficult for us. We get tired and our brains no longer want to do the work,” explains Jamie van Schoor, Dwyka Mining Services’ CEO. “Robots love to be able to repeat. It’s what they’re built for. To create the right data sets we need the right tools and Spot can get that data in the toughest of environments.” While Spot is perfect for Africa’s narrow-reef mining environment, the mechanical canine could easily be used as a search-and-rescue robot, carrying much-needed medical supplies. “One of the big things we’re going to be doing now with Spot is gas detection and LiDAR surveys, pre- and post- blast. We’re also going to do convergence monitoring of all the pressure on tunnels underground,” adds van Schoor. “Mining is so complex but Spot can do the repeatable, easier tasks more safely. That said, you do need people to turn Spot on and make sure he is doing what you need him to do when he gets underground.”
While Spot is relatively easy to control using Boston Dynamics’ web platform or with its video game-like tablet, a robot like Spot is heavy duty – and pricey – which means it works best in an industrial or commercial setting.
Stepping outside of mining and manufacturing, major robotics companies are also investing in home cobots and those which are available today, use similar sensor and AI technology to their big industry counterparts.
While there are high-tech industrial robotic arms performing surgeries, domestic-focused cobot manufacturers are looking into areas like nursing – creating digital robot companions to fill the global caregiver crisis.
Forge Academy, for example, has an internal startup focused on personal robots that could assist the elderly and people living with disabilities.
Thanks to better connectivity, household cobots which are smaller, cheaper and often more versatile are also becoming a part of our day-to-day reality with cleaning robots, like iRobot’s Roomba, cementing the idea that connected (and robotized) homes are the future.
“A smart appliance is often more of an established decision. It’s more than a fridge or dishwasher as it’s coming into your space and you have to work out how you’re going to live with this thing,” says Kalycia Urquhart, iRobot SA’s marketing lead. “Because a Roomba moves on its own accord, we give it a persona. It feels like a creature that you have to embrace.”
In an era of automation where machines are becoming more intelligent, the space shared by humans and cobots – whether it’s an office, warehouse, or home – has to be one of safety, predictability and security. “This personalization with technology is interesting – you have to trust cobots in order to become comfortable with them.”