I have something to admit: I’m terrified of spiders and of needles. There was never a bad experience when I was a child to allow for such irrational fears of things that a) I’m clearly bigger than, and b) have positively changed healthcare forever, but I become awash with dread at the prospect of the two. If you gave me a few more minutes, I’m sure I could come up with a couple more, and I know most of you could too.
And many—who perhaps don’t understand or choose not to understand the life-changing technology at play—have the same level of fear, but of robots and the automation that comes with them. Besides movies like The Terminator however, few, if any, humans really have a reason to be fearful of robots. So is this fear just as irrational as my fear of spiders, or should we really be threatened by these technological innovations?
“The fear of automation, robotics, or AI trends comes from the fear of the unknown,” Roger Varma, CEO of ifm efector, shared.
“People do not have a deep enough understanding of the topic. Watson, IBM’s computer, took over 50 years of development. We are decades, perhaps longer, away from the processing power needed for the type of technology people fear, and who’s to say it’s going to be as terrible as pop culture portrays it?”
Varma’s reassurance on this topic, as well as his patience in explaining a great number of things in the field of robotics, pointed to his mastery and enthusiasm for the subject. His leadership position at ifm efector, the designer and manufacturer of some of the industry’s highest quality industrial sensors and controls, has allowed Varma to immerse himself in some of the most cutting-edge and exciting projects robotics has going right now, like collaborative automation.
In a traditional automotive plant, robots are caged off and kept far away from the company’s employees. This approach to automation does make sense, as the machinery is expensive, and companies do not want their people unintentionally—or intentionally, if you sawI, Robot and have what we’ll call Robophobia—harming the machines, or vice-versa.
Cost has also been a factor—install prices for automated machinery have been high, and there has traditionally been a level of risk with these robots that didn’t always pay off.
But over time a few companies have developed “cobots”—robots that are built to work in collaboration with humans.
“Robots do the heavy lifting, like picking up and placing a tire, and the human worker puts in the hardware. Companies like BMW and Honda in the U.S. have deployed collaborative robots where repetitive tasks were causing injuries to people. These cobots even provide voice feedback if you get too close.”
But despite the incredible leaps and bounds the field of robotics has made in the last few years, robots are clumsy and still have a hard time “seeing”. This is where companies like ifm efector come in.
Depth perception is a difficult thing to engineer. Many robots have “dumb” sensors that allow them to “see” in 2D or 3D, but they can’t tell you the distance an object is from it.
ifm efector’s 3D point cloud—a set of data points, defined usually by X, Y, and Z coordinates to represent the external surface of an object—is giving robots this ability.
“Our chip allows each pixel from an image to get a distance measurement. A similar technology is on top of Google’s driverless cars. But where that is a $60k laser building a point cloud, we’re doing the same thing with a simple chip that can be in a tablet or robot.”
This isn’t just next-generation technology, folks, it’s already being applied. Audi has been testing ifm efector’s chip in its cars, and the manufacturing and logistics industries are already benefiting from its application.
“The most important statistic for the shipping industry right now is weight. But more and more, logistics is asking for weight, width, and size—also known as X,Y, and Z coordinates in a point cloud. Robots can now look at the size of boxes, collect pertinent information, and determine the most efficient way to send it.”