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What's New In Robotics?  29.11.2019

Emmet Cole
by Emmet Cole. Last updated on Nov 29, 2019 8:00 AM
Posted on Nov 29, 2019 7:00 AM. 9 min read time

Good morning.  In this week's news mix: China's 'zero-gravity' cobot, Boots announces a 135 cobot pilot and Vectios Automation unveils cobot welding tool.  We also meet the Intelligent Rowing Tank, scratch heads over a new debating robot, marvel at GLUON's Kickstarter success and much more! 

Cobots & manufacturing

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation --a state-owned contractor for China's space program-- has reportedly created a system that enables seamless human-robot collaboration involving heavy-duty industrial robots.  While details are scarce, the system is apparently being used to speed up satellite production and operates "so smoothly alongside humans that scientists have dubbed [its] movements 'zero gravity'.” 


Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft Environment Engineering

South China Morning Post reports:

The researchers put sophisticated visual and mechanical sensors on the robotic arm. They upgraded its motors to achieve gentle, smooth movements when holding a heavy object. They were aiming to create technology that could “feel” the surrounding environment and respond, interacting with humans.

Vectis Automation released video of its Vectis Cobot Welding Tool this week.  Powered by a UR10 cobot, the system is "25 percent to 40 percent less expensive than the all-in cost of a small traditional robot welder"...


Meanwhile, UK pharmacy giant Boots revealed that it is running a large-scale pilot with 135 collaborative warehouse robots in an effort to increase efficiency during the 'Black Friday' rush.

BOOTSBoot's bots at work.  Credit: Boots UK, Ltd.

Via ITV News:

The robots - or "cobots" - are being used to try and help cut down the distance the warehouse team have to walk, making their work more efficient. They've reportedly even been given names like Botty McBotface, and are said to help deliver 3 million items over the Black Friday season (21 Nov to end of 2 December).

Variable speed drive manufacturer Invertek Drives automated the testing phase of its production line using two UR5 cobots fitted with fancy custom grippers.  The set up has proven a success, resulting in reduced test cycle times and improved quality control outcomes and worker safety.

182765Credit: Invertek Drives

Via Control Engineering Europe:

“Our workloads can change every other minute so we needed cobots that can handle the inspection and testing of constantly changing devices, all within a single production line,” said Peter Evans, manufacturing engineering manager at Invertek Drives.

  • The word of COVR is spreading: 82 applicants in 2nd Open Call (COVR)
  • Hahn Group sees growth through acquisitions (Plastics News)
  • Smaller manufacturers that need a helping hand add robotic arms (Forbes)
  • New EduCart Workcell Features GP8 Robot and YRC1000 Microcontroller (ThomasNet)
  • ABB and B&R launch first fully integrated machine-centric robotics solution  (Robotics Tomorrow)


WBUR in Boston, USA reported Monday that Massachusetts State Police's bomb squad has been testing Boston Dynamics' Spot robot.  According to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, the bot was allegedly involved in two "police incidents" in the field during the 3-month testing period. 

2019-11-26-image-5Credit: MA State Police

Via TechSpot

“All too often, the deployment of these technologies happens faster than our social, political, or legal systems react. We urgently need more transparency from government agencies [...] We also need statewide regulations to protect civil liberties, civil rights, and racial justice in the age of artificial intelligence,” said Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

IBM's 'Project Debator' robot participated on both sides of a Cambridge Union debate this week on the benefits and risks of artificial intelligence.  The event showcased "speech by crowd" technology, which enabled the bot to formulate opening arguments for both sides based on 1,000+ text submissions from students at the University.  

IBM DebateCredit: Cambridge Union

New Scientist reports:

IBM has plans to use the speech-by-crowd AI as a tool for collecting feedback from large numbers of people. For instance, it could be used by governments seeking public opinions about policies or by companies wanting input from employees, said IBM engineer Noam Slonim.

See full video of the debate below.  In the meantime, I'll be scratching my head and wondering whether a bot can be held responsible for losing (or winning) a debate in which it appeared on both sides. 

Meanwhile, contrary to some popular misconceptions, scientific work isn't a long series of Eureka! moments interspersed with bouts of inspiration and wonder.  In fact, much of the work scientists do is extremely repetitive and therefore, ideally suited to automation, which is exactly what researchers from MIT have done with their Intelligent Towing Tank technology. 

mittankThe Intelligent Towing Tank has conducted 100,000 experiemnts in one year.  Credit: MIT

Via Science Robotics:

“This constitutes a potential paradigm shift in conducting experimental research, where robots, computers, and humans collaborate to accelerate discovery and to search expeditiously and effectively large parametric spaces that are impracticable with the traditional approach,” the team writes.

Come back next week for more of the latest robotics news! Until then, please enjoy...

Five vids for Friday

1.  On Monday, researchers from the National University of Singapore unveiled a new metal-based material that they've been developing for use in flexible soft robots. Half as light as paper and flexible enough to stretch and fold, the new material also conducts electricity and is capable of wireless communication. 

2.   The full 98-minute long Cambridge Union debate on whether artificial intelligence brings more harm than good. 

3.  A companion robot developed by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland has been hosting Bingo sessions in a UK care home. Dubbed 'Stevie' the bot is currently participating in a 2-week pilot study at Reflections day centre in Camborne, Cornwall. (The Telegraph has more.)

4.  GLUON --a modular, low-cost educational desktop cobot developed by INNFOS-- went live on Kickstarter this week and reached its funding target in just 30 seconds! (H/T Kickstarter

5.  Jerzy Greblicki, head of the Radical Automation Division at AIUT, believes that the future will belong to "those most willing to integrate how humans and robots interact." How humans and machines interact was the topic of Greblicki's recent TEDx talk, which went online Wednesday.  

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Emmet Cole
Written by Emmet Cole
A freelance robotics writer since 2006, Emmet is an Economist contributor, and a regular contributor to Robotics Business Review and Robotics Trends. His writing on robots has also appeared in Wired, BBC Future, BBC Focus magazine, Space Quarterly, and numerous other outlets.
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