Technology

My colleague is a robot

 By Chris Dalby

The traditional vision of an intelligent robot taking care of your home is embedded in countless films and novels. Much of the research toward artificial intelligence (AI) robots was even guided by that vision. However, in the last couple of years, a new reality has emerged: teams of smaller machines working together on specific tasks in collaboration with humans, either at home or in the workplace…

These collaborative robots, or “cobots”, are likely to be the first mass consumer AI product. These robots are capable of cognitive learning, the ability to learn new tasks and divide them amongst themselves. If a task needs doing, the closest ‘cobot’ will take care of it, regardless if that particular cobot has performed that task before. Cobots are expected to represent 34% of all robots sold by 2025, with much of that taken up by the consumer industry. At the moment, cobots are augmenting or complementing tasks carried out by humans. Most of the press covering their development has discussed their impact on manufacturing, where their ability to ensure quality control, tending to machinery or packing goods has been a game-changer. But in other areas, cobots are showing real potential to act independently from humans while directly improving the lives of those they serve. Outside the factory floor or assembly line, from operating theaters to oil rigs, cobots are saving people’s lives.

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ABB YuMi, a double arm cobot at the DEONET plant in the Netherlands (ABB)

Cobot in the surgery room

Medical robots have usually been designed at great cost with a specific purpose in mind, from small endoscopy robots sent to detect cancerous tumors inside a body to full exoskeletons used during rehabilitation. These have always been performed with complete human control. But through cobot technology, robots can now complete varied tasks based on the need of the patient or the surgery being carried out. Robotics company Kuka is developing a line of consumer robots equipped for these purposes; they are able to deliver medication, track vital signs, contact emergency services, and eventually even perform simple procedures, such as taking blood. In the operating theater, robots are being used as “assistants,” but cobots can now also work in tandem to alleviate complex medical tasks. “Scoliobot,” being developed at the University of Nottingham in the UK, combines two cobots, one that tracks how a patient moves and collects data about their spine, and another that uses said data to drill the right holes for realignment rods to support vertebrae.

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Professor Philip Breedon of the Medical Design Research Group of Nottingham Trent University and Scoliobot (Nottingham Trent University)

Offshore cobots

Oil rigs are currently being overhauled to be safer and more autonomous, cutting down on risks while improving their drilling and extraction ability. To this extent, cobots are an important part of this future. Over the next decade, automation will centralize numerous processes in control rooms run by cobots, overseeing key processes, ensuring day-to-day tasks are performed and monitored, albeit with humans always ready to intervene. Robots acting autonomously on rigs have been a reality since 2018, with oil rigs in the North Sea using them to carry out dangerous but vital tasks, including detecting gas leaks and carrying out other inspections. Supermajor oil companies believe this will have a major impact on profitability, specifically because “these platforms will deliver economic viability with oil at $50 a barrel and meet very high safety and environmental standards.” Finally, the biggest innovation in oil rig robotics comes from Oseberg H, the world’s first fully automated rig. Delivered in October 2018, Oseberg H is located 8 kilometers off the Norwegian coast and provides fascinating insight into how automation happens on a grander scale. All its simpler processes are fully automated to robots while the monitoring and key decision-making are conducted by human operators in the control room. In-person visits are only scheduled a few times a year, and there are no facilities on board to meet human needs. Economically, automated and robotic platforms like Oseberg H will make it more viable to tap smaller oil fields and discoveries than when using a human crew. “Unmanned production platforms have a potential to increase revenue, improve safety, reduce costs and carbon emissions,” Eskil Eriksen, spokesperson for Equinor, the platform’s developer, told Offshore Technology.

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The Oseberg H platform (uptime.no)

Some wildcards

The potential use and benefits of cobots are numerous, but so are the concerns around them. How are they powered? How long can cobots operate alone? How easy are they to use? As cobots continue to develop, moving beyond factories inside hospitals and homes, these key questions will determine their success. Given the range of tasks they can be programmed to carry out, cobots carry health and safety caveats. Early incarnations were often kept separate from human workers although it is now standard to have cobots working alongside people inside factories. Furthermore, one of their key advantages is that most cobots do not require staff with advanced training, such as automation engineers, to be operated. On oil platforms, some initial models, such as those in the North Sea, do have to be plugged in to recharge, however, a rapid evolution is taking place. The Argonaut robots, deployed to work in tandem to carry out routine inspections, can return to their charging docks. Even newer models of cobots are powered by a solar cell battery, which can be rapidly and cleanly recharged.

Robots could be soon working independently alongside humans on platforms around the world

One example arguably best defines how robots can combined long energy autonomy and remote control—the ideal synergy for cobots. Although the Empowered Remotely Operated Vehicle (E-ROV) is not a cobot, it has striking similarities with its collaborative brethren. Certified to operate at 1,000 meters underwater, it has its own on-board intelligence system, is controlled by a remote control room without the need for a mothership and enjoys its own subsea charging system, giving it even more autonomy. Cobots are taking some industries, such as healthcare or automotive, by storm. It will be a slower process for the energy sector. But this offers its own advantages. Where some sectors are worried about the immediate impact of cobots on human labor, the oil and gas industry is relatively free from the risks of automation. This gives it times, through leaps of technology such as Oseberg H, to strike the right balance between human and cobot.

READ MORE: Robots are taking over oil rigs by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.