Until now, robots have been primarily used as heavy-duty industrial machines performing monotonous tasks behind factory fences. But the future belongs to a more flexible and intelligent generation: the sensitive robot assistant that offers support in everyday life. And we do badly need support in some areas.
“Do you have a cellphone yet?” Only 15 years ago this question was generally answered with head shaking. Too expensive, too cumbersome, too few functions. As strange as this reaction may seem today, it is likely that one day we will look back in a similar fashion on the question: “Do you have a cobot yet?” At least that’s what Dr. Albrecht Hoene, R&D Director for Human-Robot Collaboration at KUKA, has in mind: “Sensitive robots that can directly interact with humans will play an important role. They will assist us in addressing the challenges of the future.”
The population of industrial nations such as Germany is becoming increasingly older. In Japan, Italy and Germany, for example, the percentage of people over the age of 65 is higher than 20 percent. And the forecasts predict a progressively aging population: while the world’s median age was 29.6 in 2015, the prediction for 2100 is already 49.2 years. What are the consequences of the life expectancy of newborns nearly doubling in the last hundred years while birth rates are going down at the same time?
The robot for humans
The demographic change is evident in the working world: the number of older people is rising and the number of young skilled workers is declining. Human-robot collaboration (HRC) is the key to coping with day-to-day work in the future. The idea is to merge the strengths of robots with the abilities of humans. “HRC makes it possible to ease the workload on people, thus keeping them on the job longer,” according to Hoene. Robot assistants are particularly useful for activities that are unpleasant, ergonomically unfavorable or monotonous. Such as in assembly, where robots can act as intelligent lifting aids. But we also need urgent support outside the working world. After all, we are getting older and more frail – the aging population is really putting healthcare to the test.
More efficient hospitals – more time for patients
“We are facing a global challenge in the healthcare sector,” says Stephan Sonderegger, CEO of Swisslog Healthcare. “All aspects of the industry are transitioning.” There are fewer and fewer specialists for ever more patients, while the statutory requirements are high. Hospitals have to reduce costs and operate more efficiently. This means shortening the patients’ stay while at the same time keeping the quality at a high level. Automation can provide logistical support, according to Sonderegger. A more efficient division of labor allows employees to focus fully on the patients, thus increasing the quality of care.
“Our solutions affect the entire medication supply chain.” Swisslog helps hospitals and healthcare facilities to make material transport and medication management more efficient. Drugs are stored, delivered and dispensed automatically. Drug management, which used to be very time-consuming and above all error-prone, is thus significantly improved. This ensures that every patient receives the right drug at the right dose.
Golden years at home instead of a retirement home
For many older people, living in a care facility is just as unavoidable and unpopular as staying in a hospital. People want to grow old in a familiar environment, even if they are no longer in good physical shape. “Allowing people to stay in a familiar environment for longer, so-called home assisted living, will be an important issue in the future,” says Michael Otto, Vice President of Healthcare&Advanced Robotics at KUKA. Assistance systems can make it possible. They support care personnel and doctors, but also patients in their very own homes. For example, an intelligent mobile walker could help to prevent falls and assist people to get up and sit down. An additional navigation feature could also help people with dementia to live independently for longer.
But how high is the acceptance of robots? Unlike some industrial nations like Japan, where care robots are already lifting patients from their beds or where animal robots with furry covers cuddle with the residents, care robotics in Germany is still in its infancy. Michael Otto is optimistic: “The acceptance of assistance systems is growing – it is a matter of assistance, not replacement.
To spur development, technology partnerships are crucial especially in the care and rehab sectors. This type of partnership created, for example, ROBERT®, a robotic rehabilitation device that aids in the mobilization of bedridden patients. It assists physiotherapists in physically demanding and repetitive exercises.
Smaller surgical procedures, faster healing thanks to robot-assisted operations
Traditional medical robotics has made significant strides. Robot assistants are already being used successfully for tumor treatments, imaging or during operations. “Each and every day, our technology provides support for 1500 tumor and cancer treatments, 2000 cardiac catheterizations, and we are currently supporting more than 120 clinical trials with our robotic equipment,” says Otto. The robotic surgical assistants help to make procedures minimally invasive – which means smaller wounds and faster healing.
In an article the Deutsches Ärzteblatt (German medical journal) took a look at the developments in robot-assisted surgery in 2016. “For most users, robot assistance ultimately provides minimally invasive surgery with the advantages of unrestricted access,” the Journal of the German Medical Association and the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians wrote. “The camera additionally allows magnification of up to ten times with an absolutely steady image.” This also opens the door to new possibilities for complex interventions.
The costs for such a technology investment are offset by the advantages of faster and more precise operations. Which is not only to the benefit of patients’ health, but is also more efficient for the hospitals.
An indispensable assistant for our daily lives
Even outside of hospitals and working life we are likely to encounter cobots more frequently in the future. “Robots will support people in many day-to-day activities in the coming years. And autonomous driving will also be an integral aspect,” says Dr. Till Reuter, CEO of KUKA AG. In a strategic partnership with Volkswagen, KUKA is working on robot-based solutions for electrically powered and self-driving cars. For example, a sensitive, HRC-capable robot independently connects one of VW’s electric vehicles to a charging station as part of the joint e-smart Connect research project. The car simply needs to be parked in a designated parking space, and everything else is handled by the mechanical assistant.
Robots are powerful and indefatigable, working precisely and reliably. They can relieve people of unpleasant or dangerous tasks and provide everyday help. The possibilities are endless, with ideas such as intelligent alarm systems, aids in cleaning dangerous substances, and even lifting assistants.
“I think we are out of the gate,” says Reuter about the future of robotics for end consumers. “The first cellphones were only used to make calls. Today, smartphones are virtually everyone’s permanent life companion. I think we will see a similar development in robotics.”
And the question: “Do you have a cobot yet?” will probably no longer sound all that futuristic.