The Future of Automation: Terminator or Roomba

the future of automation

Automation has an exciting future with robots that can maneuver into trucks and select packages, assist people in a manufacturing company or move from one floor to another in a hospital setting.

Improved vision and sensing capabilities mimic human abilities, but don't expect to work alongside a Terminator-type cyborg that gets damaged and slips into a dark room and heals itself. Service robots like the Roomba cleaner are a more down-to-earth use of everyday automation.

On the other hand, let's say a cyborg did slip unnoticed into a factory and … okay, let's take a realistic look at the ever-developing world of automation.

Human Elements of Automation

Common sense isn't just a human trait. Robots have had it, too, for a few years now. Of course, it took people to make it happen. Manufacturers have used robotics to perform repetitive tasks at superhuman speed. The drawback was these types of automated systems is that they performed well in an environment where few variables existed. Machines could affix labels to bottles or packages that had the same dimensions.

The next step in robotics development was creating machines that could adapt to a changing environment. What if a robot drops an object? The Baxter robot from Rethink Robots knows to stop and get another item before finishing its task. The number of human-type traits that a robot can have are listed in the write-up Rethink Robots Revolutionizes Manufacturing with Humanoid Robot.

This type of robot won't get caught up in an intergalactic battle. Small to medium-size businesses will appreciate that a smart robot like this has more practical uses and only costs around $ 22,000 and a worker can teach it what to do in about a half hour. Besides Baxter, there are other companies developing collaborative robot applications too. A summary of these companies can be found in this article Major Robot OEMs Fast-Tracking Co-Bots.

Traits of a Service Robot

Homeowners with pets are used to walking around a kitchen and sidestepping a pet dog. You might walk down a hallway and have to move away from someone pushing a cart. That's easy for you to do. From a robot's perspective, however, the human world is unstructured. Anything can happen.

Service robots are being manufactured to be as autonomous as possible and a leader in this trend is iRobot, the maker of the Roomba floor cleaner. The company has sold 10 million home robots since its founding in 1990. Additional systems have been sold to the military for use in destroying bombs and increasing troop safety. Remote automated equipment is being used in hospitals for doctor-patient interaction.

The potential for widespread use in home and industry is similar to how personal computers in the 1980s became indispensible. Engineers have the challenge of making the equipment user-friendly for people who will likely not have a technical background.

The robot itself is able to determine changes in the world around it as noted in Our Autonomous Future with Service Robots. “Let’s say you have a fictitious mobile robot with an arm, which can move around an office building,” said Dr. Chris Jones, Director of Strategic Technology Development at iRobot. “It might even need to open and close doors.

"To do that, it needs to be able to effectively know what a door is. It needs to be able to perceive the environment around it and say 'Oh, that’s a door, and there’s the door handle.' The environmental factors around recognizing that door are going to be more challenging.”

Safety Issues

We can imagine how robots might move freely but loose equipment that's not being handled by a person sounds like a potential disaster in the making. Manufacturers are finding ways to make robots safe and work within the parameters of mandatory safety standards. Robots are programmed to quickly shift gears and move around hazards. Take an in-depth look at safety with The Shrinking Footprint of Robot Safety to discover how commands are embedded in the robot's software controls.

Don’t expect robots to take on such human forms that you might mistake one for a co-worker. Do expect robots to be programmed so they can move around posts, avoid running into people, and handle tasks while moving from one place to another. Robots that act independently are made with the same goals as previous automated systems. Companies that use them for well-defined purposes will find a boost in productivity, gain a competitive edge, and discover reduced production costs.