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The robot revolution

Robots are on the march – and they are heading for unexpected new destinations.

An army of robots more than four million strong enters the world every year. Have they come to free humanity, or to enslave us? Perhaps neither.  According to industry figures, toys, education kits, automated vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers account for the vast majority of those ma­chines. But the changing nature of the final quarter of a million or so industrial and “professional service” robots reveals a revolution that is quietly, but profoundly, changing an increasing number of industries.

Take industrial robots for starters, which ISO 8373 (from the International Organization for Standardization) defines as: “An automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.” These robots come in hundreds of different types, from heavyweight arms manipulating crucibles of molten metal in foundries, to high-speed “pick and place” systems on electronics production lines.

Technology in hand

The science of bionics took a great leap forward in September when a paralyzed 28-year-old man was fitted with a robotic hand that was wired directly into his brain, allowing him to “feel.” The hand was developed at Johns Hopkins University in the US and is part of a research project into advanced replacement limbs, funded by the US‘s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The hand technology is so advanced, the man is even able to tell which of his mechanical fingers is being gently touched.

“At one point, instead of pressing one finger, the team decided to press two without telling him,” remembers DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez. “He responded in jest asking whether some-body was trying to play a trick on him. That is when we knew that the feelings he was per-ceiving through the robotic hand were near-natural ...”

Wherever they work, industrial robots are enjoying a boom. In 2014, worldwide sales reached 225,000 units, a rise of 27 percent in a single year. Much of that growth was driven by exploding demand in Asia: China, now the largest robotics market, grew more than 50 percent between 2013 and 2014, but robot sales in Europe and the US also broke records.

According to Jonathan Tilley, a manufacturing expert at consultancy McKinsey, today’s rapid rise in the popularity of robots is the result a confluence of factors. “First, there’s cost,” he says. “Manufacturing wages in China are five times higher today than they were in 2008, while the price of robots has halved in real terms over the past 30 years.” Today’s industrial robots are also increasingly capable, he notes, as advances in hardware, sensors and data processing capacity mean they can work faster, move with greater precision and coordination, and respond to changes in their environment, allowing them to take on more complex tasks.

The final element in today’s industrial robotics revolution is firmly human, however. “When I started working with robots in the automotive industry in the 1980s, there was a real shortage of engineers with the skills to design and commission robotic production cells,” notes Tilley. Today, he says, improvements in software and the emergence of “plug and play” technologies for sensors and other components make it much easier to build robotic production systems. “And robotics is now widely taught in schools and colleges around the world, which means people with the right skills are much more readily available.”

Together, those changes mean the modern robot has a much broader range of job prospects than its predecessors. The first industrial robot, the General Motors Unimate, was built in 1961 specifically to work in dirty and dangerous foundry environments. And it was the automotive industry, with its unique combination of high production volumes, physically challenging but repeatable work, and a willingness to design products specifically for robotic assembly, which went on to become their biggest employer. Carmakers and their suppliers still account for around 40 percent of total industrial robot sales, and they are continuing to invest as they expand robotic production into new areas.

But where other sectors were once just a footnote on the industrial robot’s résumé, they are now catching up fast. The electronics industry, which has tra­di­tion­al­ly relied so heavily on the nimble fingers of human workers, is now facing more pressure to automate as it becomes increasingly hard to find enough factory workers to meet demand. Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, has been developing its own industrial robots since 2007, for example, and says it now uses 50,000 of them across its operations, with plans to grow that number by 10,000 a year.

As robots get cheaper and more user-friendly, they increasingly make economic sense in other industries too, from aerospace to agriculture, which also have “dull, dirty or dangerous” jobs for which it is hard to find human workers, but which previously couldn’t justify the cost of and complexity of buying and pro­gram­ming a robot to do them. Robots are even finding work in roles that require very high levels of precision and coordination, from surgery to watchmaking.

Advances in safety technology are making a big difference too. While earlier generations of industrial robots had to operate in cages to prevent them injuring human workers who accidentally came too close to a fast-moving arm, the latest models, such as Baxter from Rethink Robotics, include technologies that allow them to detect the presence of other workers and to modify their movements to avoid collisions. For the first time, this makes it possible for robots and people to work side by side on the same production lines, and for companies to consider automating individual parts of otherwise manual assembly jobs, or allowing robots and humans to share the same tasks depending on demand.   

Robots at your service

Welcome to the Henn na Hotel in Japan – a world first because it’s almost entirely staffed by robots. The humanoid doll at reception can help you with check-in, while the porter is an automated trolley which will take your luggage to your room. You can also talk to a robot concierge who sits on your bedside table and will answer questions such as “What time is it?” and “What is the weather tomorrow?” The hotel is run as a part of the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Sasebo, Nagasaki, but the owner, Hideo Sawada, insists it’s no gimmick. This, he says, is a serious attempt to use technology and save on labor costs.

At your service

Robots aren’t just finding new factory jobs. They are increasingly seeking employment in the wider world. Professional service robots have yet to achieve either the volume or the rapid growth rates of their industrial cousins, with sales of 21,000 units in 2013, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Smaller annual sales hide a long-term upward trend, however, and the IFR reports that more than 100,000 pro­fes­sion­al service robots have been sold in the past five years, compared with only 60,000 in the previous twelve.

Nearly half of service robot sales are to the military, and the majority of these are unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, from lightweight, hand-launched re­con­nais­sance craft like the Thales Fulmar to full-size combat aircraft like the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. A much smaller number of unmanned ground vehicles were sold for specialist applications like bomb disposal.

Intriguingly, the largest civilian employer of service robots today is in agriculture, where robotic milking machines are an increasingly popular option for dairy farmers looking to cut labor costs and boost yields by allowing their cattle to “check in” for milking whenever they like.

That fastest growing civilian sector for service robots, however, is logistics.  The IFR reports that sales of robotic logistics systems – principally automated guided vehicles for warehouse and factory applications – increased by 37 percent between 2012 and 2013. As with industrial robotics, the industry body suggests this growth is being driven by a number of underlying tech­no­log­i­cal advances, including the increasing availability of detailed digital plans to aid route finding, smarter autonomous navigation and the availability of better energy storage and recharging technologies.

Of course, many players in the logistics space have even bigger ambitions for robotics, including the use of drones for fully automated last-mile delivery for smaller packages. DHL’s own “Parcelcopter” drone became the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in 2014, with the opening of an experimental route delivering medical supplies to the North Sea Island of Juist.

“May the best robot win”

What if robots could play a big part in humanitarian and disaster relief operations, going into areas too dangerous or unstable for humans? Could they save lives?

The US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) thinks they could and, in 2012, launched the DARPA Robotics Chal-lenge, a competition to build the most incredible robots the world has ever seen. Teams in the Challenge – battling for the chance to receive a share of millions of dollars of prize money – answered a brief to “develop human-supervised ground robots” that could do everything from driving a car down a road and passing over a barrier to climbing stairs, flipping a switch and opening doors.

In the end, afters years of painstaking development, the winners – announced in June – were the DRC-Hubo robot from Team Kaist of the Republic of Korea, the Running Man robot from Team IHMC Robotics of the US and the CHIMP robot from Tartan Rescue, also from the US.

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Future forms

Military investment is an important driver of robotic technology. The US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has organized a long-running series of open competitions for developers of autonomous vehicles and robotics technologies. Winner of the agency’s $2 million 2015 robotics challenge, the Korean DRC-Hubo humanoid robot, for example, had to com­plete eight tasks in a simulated humanitarian disaster scenario, including driving a vehicle, climbing up stairs and through rubble and shutting off valves and elec­­tri-­c­al circuit breakers.

Events like the DARPA challenge don’t just attract the interest of generals. Schaft, the Japanese team behind the winner of a previous competition, was one of eight advanced robotics companies acquired by software giant Google in recent years, along with Boston Dynamics, which has built quadruped robots capable of running at more than 45 kph.

Through projects like these, the robotics industry isn’t just developing and showcasing its skills, it is also asking fundamental questions about the forms that future robots will take. The answers to those questions are still emerging.  Research teams around the world have been developing a whole kingdom of new robot designs, in­clud­ing forms derived from snakes, bees and hummingbirds.

The human body continues to set the benchmark for versatile machines, however. London-based Shadow Robot Company develops advanced manipulation systems for robots that mimic the form and function of the human hand. The company’s devices are used by the research departments of universities, space agencies and military organizations around the world.  “When we built our first products, we assumed that once we had solved the mechanical challenges, controlling the hand wouldn’t be hard to do,” says Managing Director Rich Walker, “In fact, what we had was so far in advance of anything avail­able at the time that it has taken years of work alongside our customers to develop suitable capabilities.”

Walker’s company is now working with a number of partners to explore potential applications for its maturing technology. The company has just embarked on a UK Government-funded project to develop a robot that is capable of picking strawberries, for example. It is a classic example of an emerging robotics challenge, he says, difficult, poorly paid and unpopular work that is tough to automate. “Until you try to apply robotics to problems like these, you really don’t know which parts will be hard to solve, and which will be easy.”

Robotics is big news these days. You will be able to read more about the robotics industry and what it means for logistics in the upcoming trend report “Robotics in Logistics,” published by DHL next year. More information will be featured in the next issue of Delivered.

Many of society’s most pressing problems share sim­i­lar characteristics, and present similar challenges and potential for robotic technology, says Walker. Ag­ri­cul­ture and transportation are two key areas, as is the task of supporting an aging population. Society is struggling to meet its rising care burden, he notes, and “The best assistive technology solutions are beginning to look a lot like robots.”   

Ultimately, however, Walker suggests that the more robots enter our lives, the less visible they may actually become. From milking machines to self-­driving cars, it’s a fact of life for robotics innovators, that “when something works, we stop calling it a robot. ” — Jonathan Ward

Henn-na Hotel
Darpa robotics challenge

Published: November 2015

Photos: Darpa, Giovanni Troilo, dpa Picture Alliance

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