Service robotics is a relatively young industry that has seen several technological improvements. Although there is still no consensus, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR, www.ifr.org) proposes a definition for service robotics which reads as follows:
“A robot that operates automatically or semi-automatically to perform useful services for the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations.”
The idea of this definition is to avoid any confusion with industrial robots currently used in manufacturing companies specifically for the production. Often, even if not always the case, service robots are mobile. Here is a non-exhaustive list of possible uses of service robotics:
- Robot in agriculture for seeds or crops.
- Robots in the mines for ore transportation, and for underground inspection.
- Infrastructure inspection robot (bridges, viaducts, dams).
- Robots for medical assistance.
- Robots for assisting people with disabilities
- Robots for monitoring and security
- Robots in hotels
- Robots in restaurants
At the technological level, the foundations of service robotics have many similarities with collaborative robotics for the manufacturing industry. This is where the real growth for service robotics is currently taking place and will eventually become more mainstream in consumer service settings. Examples of industrial applications of service robotics:
Robots in agriculture are not yet widely used because they depend on the development of the processing of the information collected by the different sensors. Coupled with a GPS system, robots in agriculture could work in seed, weeding, watering and picking. The main difficulty lies in the highly varied environment, which complicates both the robot’s mechanical design and the information processing algorithms. The installation of this type of robot in greenhouses is an interesting avenue to start with these new technologies. Indeed, the environment is more stable and controlled, which should facilitate their use.
Tree cutting seems to be the preferred task for robotics in forestry. One of the challenges is to identify trees that can be cut off from those that should remain. As with agriculture, many challenges lie in changing terrain conditions, brightness, climatic conditions, etc.
The primary utility of robotics for mines is the protection of human health and life. Typical tasks for robots are creating map galleries of the mines, laying explosives, picking minerals in places that are dangerous to humans. Other anticipated developments are stand-alone drilling systems and stand-alone or transport systems. The United States Department of Energy financed a development project for a user-friendly robot interface for open pit mines.
We are not talking about cleaning the floor in our homes here, of course, there are robots already doing that, but about autonomous systems that can clean large areas in factories, warehouses, and large buildings. It is estimated that labor represents between 70 and 80% of the cost of cleaning. So there are some interesting opportunities in this area.
Cleaning of Pipes and Tanks
While cleaning ducts, pipes and tanks is an obvious task for robots, very few systems are in use at this time. In many cases, access is difficult even for any human. Moreover, this cleaning is often carried out under difficult conditions, if not downright dangerous. According to studies, tank cleaning would take place three to five times faster with a robot than manual operation, mainly because of the various safety requirements.
Cleaning of Transport Equipment
Several robots have been designed for outdoor cleaning of vehicles, aircraft, boats, and trains. In many cases, these developments did not go beyond the stage of the prototype. It is only in extreme situations that these projects have been realized: decontamination of military vehicles or removal of crustaceans from boat hulls. This type of application is expected to grow in the future.
Inspection and Maintenance of Infrastructure and Plants
Inspection and maintenance of large structures such as buildings, bridges, viaducts, and offshore installations are costly and often dangerous to humans. The use of robotics can therefore greatly facilitate these tasks, especially to avoid exposing people to dangerous situations or conditions. For example, Robots are being used to inspect the Fukushima reactor in Japan that was damaged by a tsunami.
Tank, Water, and Sewer Inspection
Similar to cleaning tanks and pipes, the use of robotics can significantly reduce the risk to humans who are currently performing these tasks. In addition, robots can access pipes that are too small for humans to enter. These tasks are clearly interesting for robots. The majority of robotic inspection systems are new, and the most have not gone further than the prototype stage.
In any demolition activity, there is always a significant risk to humans. At present, it is mainly remote or partially autonomous robotic systems are used. The autonomy of these systems would need to be improved to reduce human intervention and risks.
Although the use of robotics in this sector has been considered since the 1980s, the adoption of these technologies is less strong than originally anticipated. One of the reasons given is the conservatism of the sector, which is reluctant to use new technologies. The other main reason is technical, the construction sites being non-standard and multi-stakeholder environments, which complicates the development of robots that can work under these conditions.
There are, however, several recent developments. Among the tasks that can be automated by robots the transport of material (bulk or unitary), preparation of equipment (cutting, forming, machining), assembly of structural elements and concreting. Some argue that robotic solutions are 30% faster than manual operations.
Others are considering building automation by splitting the steps: prefabricating components in the factory automatically and manually assembling at the site. In this situation, we are returning to a more traditional manufacturing type of robotics.
Construction of Roads
The first robotic prototypes of paving and rolling equipment were introduced to the market, but their utilization remains limited. Another suggested application is the tracing of lines and other indicators on the road surface. The main advantages of robotic solutions remain in terms of worker safety and productivity, as robots can work continuously.
With the popularity of automated and flexible manufacturing cells, the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) will be a trend in the future. The latest developments in navigation now make it possible to have fully autonomous AGVs. They are used in large factories and distribution centers. In factories, robot arms can unload the material supplied by the AGVs.
For several years, the use of AGVs for transporting containers in ports has been a key goal of the industry. The port of Brisbane in Australia has the first examples of this approach. The Germans are also working on this for various ports.
We do interact with service robots in diverse ways virtually every day as consumers, though we may not realize it. At the self-check-out in the grocery store, we interact with a very limited scanning and bagging robot. At the ticket kiosk in a movie theater, a robot is there to take our order and provide tickets. And when making inquiries or purchase online, we may be interacting with an “AI-powered robot”. At robotic technology powered by artificial intelligence continues to advance there is no doubt it will have a significant impact on the industrial and consumer service industry.