By Mark McCallum, CTO, Orange Business Services
Robotic technologies have certainly transformed substantially since the first idea for a mechanical knight was sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1459. Even then, those with an understanding of the benefits of automation and robotics saw the significant advantages of replacing humans with technology that could perform the task continually, repetitively, longer, and without the dangers.
Today, robotic automation is by no means a new concept; in fact the rate at which robotics is advancing is staggering with new developments being applauded daily as the application of automated systems add significant value to the lives of individuals, businesses, and societies.
We are in an age where the application of next-generation of automation is doing more than we ever thought possible, impacting individuals and businesses, in many instances without even being noticed. Automation may have significant benefits for the African market, assisting in a more rapid development of sectors where automation can play a significant role in addressing the negative impact of skills shortages, as well as substantially increasing the productivity and output of manufacturing processes – thereby increasing a city’s, country’s, or region’s global competitiveness. The correct use and implementation of robotics may assist in closing the gaping global wealth divide.
The world is already familiar with first generation robots. These automated systems were deployed in manufacturing and beyond, but tended to be highly expensive and difficult to reprogram for other tasks. They were beneficial for mass production, but the hassle and expense of reprogramming these machines for other uses meant they were of limited use.
Things have changed. Today’s next generation robots combine automation with the kind of data-driven intelligence you can see in semantic learning systems like IBM’s Watson or Microsoft AIX. Even Siri has become an automated assistant, replacing the need for a set of tasks that, in the 1970’s and 80’s would have justified the employment of a second personal assistant or secretary. This is a trend that is not slowing down, and it is not too far-fetched to predict that within the next 20 years, secretaries and personal assistants would have gone the same way as the street gas lighters and public messengers of the 1700 and 1800’s.
Frost & Sullivan says AI-controlled assembly and production lines will soon become the norm. These self-learning machines will pick up some of the jobs humans just can’t, won’t or should not do, and y some key examples of this are already evident, especially in more recent military and civil policing applications.
AMP Robotics founder, Matanya Horowitz, notes working conditions for human employees in the recycling sector are “dull, dirty and dangerous”, meaning “recycling is ripe for this technology.” ZenRobotics in Finland already offers what it calls the “first commercially available robotic waste sorting system”. This vision is a little like the recycling robots you find in Wall-E. We’ve already seen automated recycling robots on the streets. Segway robot hybrid Dustbot was deployed for a short period in Italy in 2009, when it cleaned trash off the street and roaming trash can, PUSH, encouraged visitors to tidy up their trash at Disney World in 2014.
Unfortunately, a common occurrence that is seen as a common denominator throughout most of Africa, is the problem of waste management and removal. Without a very controlled and process driven waste collection and management system, a municipality is simply not able to manage the ongoing rubbish collection task, and once this process is interrupted for however long, it problem literally piles up to a point where it may become years or decades before the waste collection and management system reaches its optimal performance level.
Johannesburg and Cape Town are examples of such instances of municipalities that are often faced with interruptions to their waste collection and management systems. While the municipalities are successful in dealing with these interruptions, these cities do present a case for the exploration of how automation may improve the process, releasing the city from the impact of human influence. It is not necessarily a need to replace the human element, just a case where the human element may work hand in hand with an automated system to mitigate interruptions.
Perhaps, such degrees of automation may only be viable for exceptionally advanced societies that have achieved a high degree of technological infrastructure, such as Singapore or the rising smart cities in the Middle East and China. Such intelligent street cleaners will undoubtedly be a feature of future smart city, although it’s likely to be at the expense of low skilled workers currently occupying such roles. It is therefore important that the implementation of such automated systems in accompanied by a substantial increase in education among a country’s citizens, so that the majority of the population are employed within the semi-skilled, skilled, and highly skilled sectors.
Intelligent machines can roam terrain humans just can’t explore, such as under the sea, in the air, or in dangerous environments. Perhaps the most well-known application of exploration robotics is that of space exploration. However, the application of exploration robotics is far more prevalent on Earth, or perhaps more correctly, under Earth.
Robotics are already being used in oil and gas exploration. Companies such as Honeybee Robotics, Liquid Robotics, Bluefin Robotics Corp. and Deep Ocean Engineering Inc. are developing a range of automated systems. These systems include intelligent machines capable of exploration deep under the ocean; small maintenance droids developed to identify and repair faults in sub-sea pipelines; and systems designed to monitor and manage marine biology. The global underwater robots market is set to grow at a CAGR of 6.92% over the period 2014-2019, according to Research and Markets.
“The growing need for underwater robotics for ocean surveillance in the field of scientific research has forced several market vendors and research institutions to develop perpetual underwater robotics for continuous surveillance,” the analyst said. These devices are also driving innovation in other sectors, “Perpetual underwater robotics have the ability to refuel themselves and are powered by natural, renewable, and ocean thermal energy,” Research and Markets explained.
Logistics and farming
Robots will also play a big part in the future of logistics and distribution. Intelligent connected systems can monitor in-store product levels and customer demand in order to automatically place orders at central warehouses. Self-driving autonomous vehicles such as those being developed by Google, Apple or Drive.ai will interact with almost completely automated distribution and warehousing systems such as that at London Gateway. Of course, smart distribution will have huge impact on the evolution of smart cities.
Similar solutions are already in play for agriculture, from M2M-systems to attend herds to automated systems for long-range farm management or fisheries control.
Once again, South Africa is a prime market for the implementation of M2M and automated robotic systems to increase the efficiency, productivity, and profitability of the agricultural sector – one of the main contributors to the country’s GDP.
Intelligent machines will inevitably have huge impact on the medical and health sector with technologies for minimally invasive surgery already in use and development. Robotics will also impact the preparation and transport of medicines, patient rehabilitation and support services provision for senior citizens and recovering patients with physical injuries. A French company called Aldebaran has been working on robots to help assist elderly, disabled or ill patients retain some autonomy since 2009.
The application of such systems in the South African content could greatly assist rural citizens that are unable to travel long distances for medical attention.
All of these sectors and more will be transformed by the rise of smart machines. Some estimates claim that by 2025 such advanced robotic and autonomous systems (RAS) could have a, “worldwide economic impact of $1.7 trillion to $4.5 trillion annually,” according to the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.
This is driving significant investment. Grishin Robotics recently announced a new $100 million fund focused on connected devices, collaborative and material-handling robots, AI and data analytics, and industrial-scale Internet of Things.
All of this activity will have a transformational impact on the world and how we live, generating much fear of technology-induced joblessness. Speaking last year, Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director-General at the European Commission, DG CONNECT addressed concerns robots could replace jobs in large numbers. “There is clear information that robots don’t steal jobs, we have to make this information freely available to all stakeholders,” he said.
The future looks bright for robots, even if their impact on society is not yet fully understood. We look forward to what it holds, especially in emerging markets, and the African and South African contexts where robotics and automation would have the largest impact.
Orange Business Services will attend the forthcoming InnoRobo event in Paris, France, where the world’s leading experts in robotics and associated technologies will share their ideas at this exciting time.