• AI & Data Science
September 29, 2021

Cobots – are they helpful in a pandemic?

Collaborative robots – also known as cobots – have become more attractive compared to the traditional robots previously employed in industrial settings. The main features that distinguish cobots from industrial robots are their lightweight structure, limited power and force, simple interface, and inherited safety guarantees.

Having these features means cobots and humans can physically collaborate with each other to accomplish a task. The intention for the employment of cobots is to be an efficient and safe assistant to humans when working together. Cobots have been a great help to humans in both health and non-health related fields.

The pandemic caused by coronavirus disease (COVID -19) has led to a variety of challenges in terms of limiting the workforce. Humans cannot endlessly perform the tasks created by the pandemic, while cobots have been built to help in these circumstances. Some examples are disinfecting the environment, performing throat swabbing tests [1] as well as serological tests [2].

A UR10 manipulator is performing oral (throat) swabbing.
The figure is reprinted with permission from [1].

Among other things, cobots are employed within industrial sections such as factories, as a part of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), to assist humans in a variety of ways, including reducing human effort in repetitive and heavy tasks. Automotive companies such as Volvo Group [3], Nissan motor company [4], Ford [5], MINI [6], Volkswagen [7], Audi [8], and BMW [9] are taking advantage of cobots in production lines for their ease of deployment and safety in close vicinity of human co-workers.

A UR10 manipulator in Nissan motor company.
The figure is reprinted with permission from [4].

The application of cobots requires advanced perception and control algorithms. The most common perception methods employed for cobots to perceive the surrounding environment are lidar, vision, and haptics, which are selected based on the type of the task and the proximity of the human operator to the robot manipulator. Apart from perception modalities, proper control of cobots requires the development of advance control algorithms. The control algorithms developed for cobots usually focus on human dynamics and behavior, impedance control, and safety-related aspects compared to traditional robotic systems.

A key difference between cobots and industrial robots is the convenience of creating new tasks. Cobots are designed to provide a simple interface for the operator to program the robot for new tasks. In this context, an interesting feature is learning by demonstration, where the operator can teach a trajectory to the robot by simply grabbing the robot and moving it along the desired path. This feature requires the use of advanced path planning methods such as Dynamic Motion Primitives (DMPs) and dynamical systems with Guassian Mixture Models (GMMs).

In conclusion, the development of cobots is one of the most important steps to integrate robots into daily life and make them an efficient collaborator, especially in situations such as pandemics. Cobots seem to be promising to increase productivity and efficiency especially in small and medium enterprises where rapid deployment, flexible automations and ease of use are crucial factors.

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Ramin Jaberzadeh Ansari