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What Are Cobots? A Guide To The Ultimate Mechanical Sidekicks

Peter Thomson
Peter Thomson  |  November 7, 2019

Not all robots are out to steal your job.

Some, in fact, are there to make your life much easier! However, this is not a new invention. The history of robotics is littered with examples of collaborative robots whose main purpose is to interface and work alongside humans instead of replacing them, enhancing our natural abilities in the process. Believe it or not, the wheel is probably the earliest example of a rudimentary cobot!

Technology has made astronomical leaps and bounds since the days of banging stones together and running from cougars. Cobots have enormous potential to transform the workplace across every industry and are already making their presence felt worldwide.

Cobots: Collaborative Machines

In essence, a cobot is a robot that is meant to share a space with other humans and accomplish tasks alongside them.

In order for a robot to truly be considered a cobot, it has to meet one of the four types outlined by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR):

types of cobots

A co-existential cobot is the most basic of there; wherein a robot and a human work alongside one another in the same workspace, but with no direct overlap in the minutiae of their labor.

Sequentially collaborative cobots directly work alongside humans, however, they don’t work on the same product at the same time. These cobots generally come before or after the human worker in the sequence of production.

Responsively collaborative cobots are robots that respond directly to the actions undertaken by a human worker. They only operate insofar as they have a human executing more complicated tasks farther up the pipeline. Finally, co-operational cobots operate alongside humans at the same time while working together towards the same task.

Each of these different types of robots can be applied to a wide range of applications, but the fact remains that they are each integrated into human activity in specific and meaningful ways.

Like all inventions, cobots are built on the countless advancements that came before. Check out our guide to the history of robotics to get the background you need:

Related content: The History of Robots →

How are cobots being used?

Cobots are finding homes in several different sectors of human life. Below are two of the most common places you could find a cobot today:

Industrial manufacturing

The common usage of cobots today, like many things in our current social world, originated from a need to increase industrial productivity. A traditional and fully autonomous industrial robot can be a death trap of swinging metal arms, moving parts, and numerous other life-threatening hazards. Industrial cobots have built-in safety features that ensure they can modulate their actions and movements based on the tasks they’re performing.

industrial cobotImage courtesy of engineering.com

For example, a cobot arm in an automobile factory might move more slowly when transporting or manipulating a heavy piece of metal in order to avoid injuring one of the nearby human workers. Cobots also come equipped with sensors that a typical industrial machine might lack so that they can safely adjust for the humans working around them.

Cobots also have the added benefit of being much cheaper and easier to set up than a traditional automated system. This makes them a viable option for small and mid-sized businesses who are looking to automate part of their industrial processes or become further specialized in more complex tech.

Medicine

While “cobotics” as a field is generally focused on the potential industrial applications of these machines, the principles of these devices also have an impact in medicine; specifically in the realm of prosthetics and administration.

Prosthetics is probably the most surprising development of cobots. While these machines might not often be referred to as such, the fact that they rely on external input from a human operator (usually in the form of electronic signals sent through a specialized brain-computer interface) means that they are not fully autonomous robots in the strictest sense. These machines are still in nascent stages of development, yet have the potential to change the lives of thousands.

medical cobotImage courtesy of universal-robots.com

More generally, cobots are used in administrative tasks in certain large hospitals. The life-and-death nature of hospital work means that a simple organizational mistake can result in lethal consequences for patients in critical conditions. Some hospitals have started using cobots to partially automate patient data, intake, and even lab testing in order to cut down on the potential for human error in these systems.

The future is in our hands

Cobots are quickly becoming an indispensable part of the landscape of robotics. With the myriad advancements being made, the possibilities for future applications are practically endless.

Curious about the future ways advanced machines could be integrated into society? Check out our piece on Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics for insight into this particular challenge.

Peter Thomson
Author

Peter Thomson

Peter Thomson works with G2 as a Content Marketing Associate. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, they graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in Sociology. Their interests include podcasts, rock climbing, and understanding how people form systems of knowledge in the digital age. (they/them/theirs)