Autonomy in Robotics

Autonomy in Robotics

Updated: Nov 30, 2018




Many of us are likely to work alongside a robot in the near future. But what does the future hold for robotics?. Robotics is an amalgamation of many core technologies. One such technology is Artificial Intelligence. Artificial intelligence is enabling robots to match human capabilities, and in many cases, even surpass them. Boston Dynamics’ work in robotics is an example. While there have been no commercial launches by the company, their concepts and prototypes have been inspirational.


Even in traditional industry, the influx of collaborative robots or Cobots (as they are known in the industry) underlines the industry wide investments in robotics. Big industrial robots that needed human support with cognitive decision making processes were hard and at times dangerous.


Research and Development in the field of robotics is backed by the idea of promoting autonomy and reduction of human intervention. Robotics has been achieving levels of productivity and accuracy higher than what was considered achievable by humans across various a number of processes and tasks.


Autonomy is still debated as task dependent. While certain repeatable tasks can be completely automated, a range of tasks that require complex decision making based on non linear, complex, unprecedented trigger events require some level of human intervention. If we take an example of a robotic system such as autonomous vehicles, there are different levels of autonomy defined. While a level 0 autonomy signifies no autonomy, level 5 autonomy corresponds to a car that requires no human intervention at all.


In industry, we are starting to see that a range of industrial robots that have achieved some level of autonomy. Collaborative robots are being designed with the idea that robots and humans would be sharing floor spaces. Most collaborative robots available today function through hand guiding, speed and human position tracking or force detection and limiting. Although they are yet to achieve the seamlessness of human interaction that complete autonomy would necessitate, these are massive steps in the direction of greater autonomy.


We have also been seeing University/ Research institutes and the R&D units of various corporations develop prototypes of robots that achieve high levels of autonomy. These include warehousing AGVs, industrial arms, etc. Such robots, coupled with computer vision and reinforcement learning are capable of recognizing different objects, and fetching objects from warehouses. However, the robots used in these scenarios are not completely autonomous, and require some human support.


In the field of healthcare, robots have made their presence felt but these are not autonomous yet. The Da Vinci Surgical System by Intuitive Surgical is considered a definite advancement over human surgeons in terms of accuracy and precision of movements required for surgical procedures.


It will be interesting to see how technology unfolds and creates new robots that are capable of achieving much more than the robots of today. Recent research and investments have led to the increase in the robot density across countries. Republic of Korea has the highest level of robot density at 631 robots per 1000 human workers; Singapore follows at 488 robots per 1000 workers.


Will autonomous robots be man's best friend or replacement. The jury is still out but we are sure to know sooner than later.


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Image Courtesy of Rethink Robotics, Inc


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