Collaborative Mobile Robotics: Why the Idea of People and Robots Working Together is Such an Important Trend
Collaborative mobile robots are a form of robot intended for industrial or scientific use in close collaboration with human workers. Industrial robots originally could only operate around people if they were caged, and a complete lockout zone was required around potentially dangerous robot arms. Over time, however, roboticists have put a lot of work on the development of collaborative arms that employ rounded features and force control to safely work on tasks with humans nearby.
The first collaborative robot arm was installed in 2008, and it became a commodity when people saw it could be safely used alongside human workers with no caging or physical safety equipment. Collaborative robots quickly became a profitable automation solution for small- and medium-sized businesses and are now commonplace in warehouses.
Similarly, mobile automation originally existed in a non-collaborative form as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) operated only on guided pathways, and workers were trained to stay out of their way. But today the world of mobile automation now includes autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that use various high-tech sensors for obstacle detection and avoidance. These sensors and autonomous technology are essential for safety in the warehouses since they allow a vehicle to “see” an obstacle and wait for it to get out of the way or detect an obstacle and plot a new path around it.
Even with the advancements in collaborative AMR technology, however, some obstacles cannot be avoided. When deploying a robotic arm into collaborative mobile robotics, it is particularly important that robots are able to sense obstacles and respond instantaneously. At IAM Robotics, our robots have specific capabilities that we are able to leverage in collaborative mobile robotics that are unlike anyone else in the industry.
Most AMRs on the market use a motor-driven application in which the motor goes through a gearbox to transfer its power to a set of wheels that move the robot. A disadvantage of gearbox-driven robots is that they require a heavier force of touch to bring the motor to stop. Because of the necessary greater force, gearbox-driven robots could pose a safety hazard when operating near human workers in the warehouse. To compensate, these types of AMRs are equipped with several bump sensors to sense unintended impacts and bypass the gearbox to more quickly stop the motor.
IAM Robotics recognized the limitation of gearbox-driven technology and developed its own solution with direct-drive wheels to deliver a true collaborative mobile robot. The direct-drive mechanism used from day one in our robots is not gear driven, and because of this direct connection, our robots have much stronger and more sensitive force feedback. Our robots can detect much lighter forces from any unintended collision and instantly transfer that response back to the motors that are directly driving the wheels, thereby stopping the robot more quickly and more reliably.
Safer overall, our robots do not require any additional bump sensors because essentially the entire body of our robots is a bump sensor. The direct-drive architecture makes our robots able to detect and respond to any impact in a much faster and more reliable fashion. Our direct-drive wheel robots are also quiet, more energy-efficient, and allow for very low-effort manual movement to position the robot or move it out of the way even when it is powered down.
Autonomous mobile robot safety is a significant issue, and the entire industry is working to establish safety requirements and guidelines. While these discussions have been ongoing for years, we believe that our fundamental architecture enables us to address the growing demand for collaborative mobile robotics in an entirely different and better way than anyone else in the industry.