Dawn of a robot revolution as army of machines escape the factory

Cleaning the Sydney Harbour Bridge used to be a dangerous, dirty and laborious job. As soon as a team of workers, operating a sandblaster, reached one end of the iconic structure they had to start again to keep 485,000 square metres of steel pristine.

Now two robots called Rosie and Sandy, built by SABRE Autonomous Solutions, blast away paint and corrosion all day long without a break. They determine which area needs most attention via a laser scan and move about on rails.

“A sand blaster can slice through flesh. Automating jobs like that is a good thing, it helps improve the quality of human work,” says Roko Tschakarow, head of the Mobile Gripper Systems Division at Schunk, which supplies the lightweight robot arm for the Sydney robots.

Rosie and Sandy are at the forefront of a wave of new autonomous robots that have broken out of the factory and could be coming to your workplace soon.

At the Automatica robot and automation fair in Munich this week the organisers devoted a whole section to so-called “service robots” for the first time.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for manufacturing, engineering and automation demonstrated a Care-O-Bot that sweeps office floors and empties waste paper bins. Pal Robotics showed Stockbot, which walks the aisles in a shop or warehouse to check inventory at night.

Oppent’s autonomous vehicles ferry laundry or waste around hospitals, Yaskawa Motoman’s dual arm robot prepares laboratory samples and OC Robotics, a Bristol-based company, supplies snake-arm robots to inspect hazardous or confined spaces such as nuclear power plants and inside aircraft wings.

Compared to the size of the industrial robotics market, service robot applications are still somewhat niche. Robot researchers are also wary of overpromising after several false technological dawns in the past.

Still, rapid advances in a range of technologies, including machine vision, tactile sensors and autonomous navigation, make these robots much more useful and, crucially, ensure they avoid collisions with humans.

“Ten years ago it took five minutes for a robot just to recognise the object in front of it was a table,” says Alin Albu-Schaeffer, director of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). “Many aspects of robotics are now reaching a critical mass . . . service robotics is coming.”

Approximately 95,000 new professional service robots, worth some $17.1bn, are set to be installed for professional use between 2013 and 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics. That excludes an estimated 22m domestic service robots – the autonomous vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers that are already becoming a familiar sight to consumers.

“As people start to benefit personally from service robots in their home and garden and as popular consumer-orientated companies like Google and Amazon create and use robot technology, public attention and acceptance is further increasing,” says Bernd Liepert, chief technology officer at German robot company Kuka.

Indeed, in the wake of Google’s robotics acquisitions and Amazon’s purchase of logistics robot maker Kiva Systems, dealmaking in service robotics is also expected to pick up.

Renaud Champion, partner at Robolution Capital, a Paris-based private equity fund focused on service robotics, says: “It’s happening, we see more and more M&A deals coming in the pipe in robotics. It’s not at the level of the internet yet, but it can happen very quickly.”

Beyond defence, the biggest non-industrial market for robots, and agriculture, healthcare is considered one of the most promising markets. Here robots can carry a high price tag – typically $1.5m per unit, including services.

“Ultraprecise surgical robots are making new forms of minimally invasive surgery possible that can reduce postsurgical complications, enable faster recovery and possibly reduce surgical death rates,” McKinsey, the consultancy, noted in a recent report.

The best known medical robot is the Da Vinci Surgical System, which is used in more than 80 per cent of prostatectomies (prostrate surgeries) in the US.

As western populations age, robots can also help old people stay in their homes for longer.

Lea Mina Ralli, 94, is being looked after at her home in Rome by the GiraffPlus telepresence robot, built by Swedish researchers.

The robot, which Ms Ralli calls “Mr Robin”, can monitor blood pressure and detect whether somebody falls down. It also has a Skype interface for relatives and carers to check-in remotely. Unafraid of technology despite her advancing years, Ms Ralli writes about the experience on her blog.

Robots can also relieve care workers from the strain of heavy lifting or fetching.

“We would like to have care personnel be more involved with patients, rather than having to spending their time fetching pills and doing admin work,” says Mr Tschakarow at Schunk.

However, first various ethical, legal and societal issues will need to be addressed.

“If a heavy robot falls on your grandma, without a clear legal framework, what’s going to happen?,” asks Mr Champion at Robolution.

Mr Albu-Schaeffer at the German Aerospace Centre says: “For a long time the legal aspects were considered even more difficult to solve than the technical. But Google has shown it is possible [by testing self-driving cars on public roads]. If you prove that robots make less mistakes than people . . . then they will succeed.”


Cows take control with robotic milking machines

Give a cow the choice between being milked by a human or a robot and there is no competition: the robot wins every time.

Lely, a Dutch family-owned business that generated €600m in revenue last year and has 2,000 employees, has installed about 20,000 milking robots worldwide. One of the robots costs a little over €100,000 and can milk 60 to 70 cows.

“These systems increase animal welfare,” says Serge Loosveld, deputy director of product development. “You are able to adjust the feeding process much better to the needs of the animals.”

Agricultural robots are in demand as farmers try to raise yields to meet growing populations and because they help alleviate rural labour shortages as people move to cities.

Agrobot, a Spanish company, makes strawberry harvesters that use robotic manipulators and an artificial vision system to identify fruit of the right size and ripeness for picking. In the US, a start-up called Blue River Technologybuilt a robot to eliminate unwanted plants in lettuce production. In Japan farmers commonly use drones to spray crops.

Many farms in western Europe are family-owned and operated; there is little money for hired help. So cows tend to be milked once in the morning and again in the evening.

“Cows with high milk yields need three or four milks [a day] – and others maybe only 1.5 times a day. With the milking robot the cow decides herself when she wants to be milked . . . The cows are at ease as there is less human intervention,” says Mr Loosveld.

Milking robots use laser technology to generate a 3D image of the cow. Each has an electronic tag so the robot can identify the cow and knows roughly how much milk it is producing. The robot also tests the quality of the milk using optical sensors and via electrical conductivity.

This is the second part of a four-part series on robots in the workplace.

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