Cobots and exoskeletons: when robots and human beings interact with each other

Robots have been incorporated into manufacturing and logistics processes in many different sectors for many years. They can be seen in all the production chains of automotive factories, working as forklifts or autonomous loaders in large logistics centers and, increasingly, in small and medium-sized companies, performing heavy or repetitive tasks. Even many pharmacies already have an automated warehouse in which a robotic arm stores and dispenses the medicines.

However, until very recently the robots had to work in isolated environments and without human interaction (beyond the remote control and the tasks of maintenance and repair thereof) since they were large, heavy machines, capable of exercising much strength and with low capacity to discern the environment in which they operate, so they are usually “caged” in a physical space in which humans can not be present while the robots operate, since the movement of the robots is preprogrammed and they could hit a human being and not even find out about it.

One of the aspects of Artificial Intelligence is known as “machine learning”. If until recently reprogramming a robot was a complex and time-consuming task, more and more systems are being developed that are able to “learn” by means of algorithms that allow them to correct errors and increase efficiency. Thus, the more exposed the system is to the manufacturing process, the more it learns and the more efficient it is.

There are two new elements in Industry 4.0 related to robotics, which are already operating in the most advanced factories and that will gradually spread to the rest: We talk about the cobots (abbreviation of “cooperative robots”) and the exoskeletons.

What is a cobot?

A cobot is a robot designed to operate safely in an environment in which there are human beings
. In fact, they usually work as assistants to human beings in tasks that require a lot of precision. There are fixed and mobile, and all are equipped with advanced sensors that allow them to continuously map their environment, detect the presence of a human being in their security perimeter and turn off (if they are fixed) or move out of their way (if they are mobile) . They are usually much smaller and lighter than traditional robots.

Its main difference with a conventional robot lies in that, while the robot is specifically designed for a specific task and executed in the best possible way, a cobot can be easily reconfigured and even perform several different tasks according to production needs. In short, a robot is specialized and a cobot is versatile.

The cobots are not designed to replace humans, but to complement them. For example, many of Amazon’s large logistics warehouses have swarms of mobile cobots that help humans prepare orders by going to look for products and bringing them closer. In addition, cobots can also be designed to cooperate with each other and not hinder each other. Following the previous example, the system that controls the Amazon cobots optimizes its distribution in the warehouse, so that when a product is requested it reaches the employee’s hands in the shortest possible time.

Exoskeletons: Making humans stronger

Another fundamental aspect of advanced robotics is the incorporation of physical aids to the human being to increase their capabilities. They are the so-called exoskeletons, which are “wearables” robots that allow a human being to carry weights without having to make a great effort or use a robotic arm superimposed on their own to be able to make more force or have more precision of movements.

Exoskeletons serve in environments where the human being is the one who must perform a task, but this task requires specific capabilities that not all human beings have. This facilitates the management of personnel (we do not need to look for a person with special strength skills or a surgeon’s pulse for high-precision work), in addition to minimizing the risk of injuries, making work environments safer and more comfortable for workers. employees.

Both cobots and exoskeletons are technologies that are already available and that constitute another piece of Industry 4.0. It is not only about increasing productivity, it is also about making the work of human beings more comfortable and safer.