Adaptive robots: The next wave transforming industrial automation

For over 60 years, traditional industrial robots have been pivotal in automating various production tasks. These robots, designed to perform specific, repetitive actions like moving objects from point A to point B, cutting metal parts, and painting vehicles, have surpassed human capabilities in speed and accuracy. However, they come with significant limitations: they can only perform a limited set of tasks, are unaware of potential hazards to people around them, and require complex programming by robotic engineers.

In the late 1990s, collaborative robots (cobots) were introduced to address these shortcomings. Designed to enhance safety, simplify deployment and programming, and facilitate collaboration with humans, cobots have seen a significant rise in popularity. Traditional industrial arm companies like KUKA, ABB, and Fanuc have expanded their product lines to include cobots, while companies like Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics, and Franka Emika have gained prominence in this space. According to MarketsandMarkets, the collaborative robot market is projected to grow from $710 million in 2018 to $12.3 billion by 2025, reflecting an impressive annual growth rate of 50.31%.

Enter Adaptive Robots: The Future of Industrial Automation

As we move further into the 21st century, a new generation of robots is emerging—adaptive robots. These are interconnected, instrumented, and intelligent machines capable of making autonomous decisions. They can learn from other connected devices and improve their actions cyclically. Adaptive robots are essentially autonomous physical machines that can sense and act upon their environment without direct human intervention.

Key Characteristics of Adaptive Robots

Adaptive robots are defined by several key characteristics:

  • High Tolerance of Position Variance: Unlike traditional robots that require precise positioning, adaptive robots can tolerate variations in their environment, making them suitable for tasks where exact positioning is difficult or impossible.
  • High Disturbance Rejection: Adaptive robots can maintain performance even when faced with external disturbances, such as vibrations, impacts, or changes in workpiece properties.
  • Transferable Intelligence: These robots can apply knowledge learned from one task to another, reducing the need for extensive reprogramming when switching tasks or adapting to new environments.
  • Hand-Eye Coordination: Adaptive robots often possess sophisticated hand-eye coordination capabilities, enabling them to perform complex tasks that require visual feedback and dexterity.

Applications of Adaptive Robots

The adaptability of these robots opens up a wide range of applications across various industries:

  • Manufacturing: Adaptive robots can handle complex assembly tasks, surface finishing on irregular shapes, and flexible pick-and-place operations, enhancing manufacturing flexibility and efficiency.
  • Logistics: In warehouses and fulfillment centers, adaptive robots can navigate dynamic environments, handle diverse items, and optimize sorting and packaging processes.
  • Healthcare: These robots can assist in surgeries, rehabilitation, and patient care, offering precise manipulation and adapting to the unique needs of each individual.
  • Retail: Adaptive robots can interact with customers, provide personalized recommendations, and assist with inventory management and restocking.

Pioneers in Adaptive Robotics

  1. Boston Dynamics: Known for its highly advanced robots like Spot and Atlas, Boston Dynamics is incorporating AI and machine learning to enhance the adaptability and autonomy of their robots. Spot, a four-legged robot, is already being used in construction, mining, and even healthcare for tasks such as inspections and deliveries.
  2. Rethink Robotics: This company focuses on collaborative robots (cobots) designed to work alongside humans in industrial settings. Their robots, like Sawyer and Baxter, are known for their adaptability and ease of programming, allowing them to be quickly repurposed for different tasks and environments.
  3. Universal Robots: Another leader in collaborative robots, Universal Robots offers a range of cobots designed for various applications, from assembly and packaging to welding and machine tending. Their robots are known for their flexibility, safety features, and ability to adapt to changing production needs.
  4. Fetch Robotics: This company specializes in autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for logistics and material handling applications. Their robots can navigate dynamic warehouse environments, adapt to changing layouts, and collaborate with humans to improve efficiency and productivity.
  5. Soft Robotics Inc.: This company develops innovative grippers and manipulation systems inspired by the flexibility and adaptability of soft biological structures. Their technology allows robots to handle delicate and irregularly shaped objects, opening up new possibilities in industries like food processing and agriculture.
  6. Flexiv: Flexiv is a prominent player in adaptive robotics, known for developing the world’s first adaptive robotic arm that combines direct force control with advanced AI. Their flagship product, the Rizon, exemplifies the future of industrial automation with its ability to perform complex tasks in dynamic environments.
  7. Robotiq: Specializing in robotic grippers, sensors, and software, Robotiq develops tools that give industrial robots the ability to adapt to different tasks and environments. Their products are designed to improve the flexibility and efficiency of manufacturing processes.
  8. ABB: A leader in industrial automation, ABB has developed the YuMi collaborative robot, which is designed to work side-by-side with humans. YuMi’s advanced sensory and AI capabilities enable it to adapt to various tasks and environments, making it highly versatile.
  9. KUKA: KUKA’s LBR iiwa (intelligent industrial work assistant) is an adaptive robot designed to work safely alongside humans. It is equipped with sensitive sensors and AI to adapt to its environment, ensuring safe and efficient operations.
  10. Omron: Omron’s collaborative robots are designed to be flexible and adaptive, capable of automating repetitive tasks and working safely alongside human workers. Their robots use advanced vision systems and AI to adapt to different tasks and environments.
  11. Covariant: Covariant specializes in AI-powered robots for logistics and warehousing. Their robots can adapt to different product types and handle variations in packaging, improving efficiency and reducing errors in order fulfillment.
  12. Realtime Robotics: Realtime Robotics develops software that allows robots to plan and execute movements in dynamic environments, enabling them to adapt to changes in real-time and work safely alongside humans.
  13. Olis Robotics: Olis Robotics focuses on remote robot control and automation solutions for hazardous environments. Their technology enables operators to remotely control adaptive robots that can adapt to challenging conditions and perform tasks that would be dangerous for humans.
  14. Veo Robotics: Veo Robotics develops 3D sensing and perception systems that allow robots to work collaboratively with humans in manufacturing environments. Their technology enables robots to adapt to the presence of humans and avoid collisions, enhancing safety and productivity.

The Future of Adaptive Robotics

As technology continues to advance, adaptive robots are poised to revolutionize industrial automation. Their ability to adapt to changing environments, handle diverse tasks, and learn from their experiences will unlock new levels of efficiency, productivity, and flexibility across industries. The future of work will likely involve a collaborative effort between humans and adaptive robots, where each contributes their unique strengths to achieve common goals.

In conclusion, adaptive robots represent a significant leap forward in robotics. Their adaptability, combined with advancements in force control, computer vision, and AI, promises to transform the industrial landscape and unlock new possibilities in automation. As we move into the future, adaptive robots will play an increasingly important role in enhancing productivity, improving safety, and enabling innovation across various sectors.