Silicon Valley is an interesting place for many reasons. One of them is the part of conversations you overhear at a networking event, at lunch or in Starbucks. I recently overheard two techies talking about “Co-Bots.” I turned and asked one of them, “So what is a Cobot?”
It is short for a collaborative robot and collaborative robots are hot in the industry right now.
A collaborative robot is intended to interact with humans – physically – in a shared workspace. This is different than more traditional robots that worked automatically in with little or no guidance from humans. The physical separation between human and robot was needed for safety reasons. You didn’t want a robotic arm to accidentally hit a person. But there are many applications where human judgement and/or intervention is still needed.
The rapid advances in both machine learning and computer vision has enabled a new generation of robots that can safely occupy the same physical space as humans.
The Robotics Industry Association describes the evolution in this manner.
Physical Barrier – The human operator and the robot are isolated by a physical barrier such as a window. Contact between the operator and the robot is not possible. These are not very common any more. Typically, the physical barrier is for a reason other than robot/human safety. An example would be robotic surgery or manipulating chemicals in a lab setting.
Virtual Barrier – There is some kind of sensor like a photo voltaic barrier that separates the operator from the robot. If the barrier is crossed, the robot stops moving. The welding robots in factories are an example of this.
Shared Workspace, Limited motion – There is no barrier, but there is limited motion on the part of the robot. The human moves, not the robot. This is commonly used in join procedures.
Shared Workspace, Contact Possible, Not Desired – Humans and robots are working in the same space, but they are not intended to come in physical contact with each other. The self-guided vehicles in factories are an example of this. We are seeing delivery robots in both restaurants and even out on the street.
Share Workspace, Contact Desired – Both the human and the robot are in motion working together. Powered exoskeletons are one of the most interesting examples of this type of cobot.
If you are in the robotics space, you should be looking at the opportunity that cobots offer to extend your product line.