Robots are on the move! Autonomous mobile robots are changing how work is done in a number of industry sectors, with health and other benefits for companies and employees.
For decades, robots have been largely stationary. Now, however, robots are able to move around autonomously, navigating according to an internal map which can be updated in real-time. These Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) can respond to unexpected objects in their path, either slowing, or stopping as appropriate. They can replan their route in response to obstacles, generally with the help of fleet management systems that coordinate and monitor the activity of multiple AMRs.
AMRs spare employees tedious fetching and carrying of goods, and heavy lifting, in industries as diverse as logistics and healthcare. They improve efficiency and reduce waste in manufacturing by connecting different parts of the production process.
AMRs help manufacturers to rapidly adjust production to meet demand. This is particularly important for manufacturers producing a small number of many different products (high-mix / low volume production). These companies need to reorganize production lines frequently - often at short notice- and AMRs give them greater flexibility. Danish manufacturer VOLA, for example, implemented a fleet of mobile robots to move boxes of products from one location to another, replacing traditional conveyors. This means VOLA can easily reconfigure the factory layout whenever necessary.
AMRs equipped with vision systems are also used for quality inspection. Inspecting parts at each stage of production, or during transport from one stage to the next, rather than at the end, saves costs as manufacturers can reject faulty parts before they have been worked on further.
Mobile robots carry the load in hospitals – and improve patient care
While Automated Guided Vehicles that follow fixed tracks have been used for some time in hospital basements, carrying linens and medications, AMRs are now navigating around hospital floors, delivering linens and medicines to nurse stations on the ward. Many can operate lifts and doors. Nurses spend a significant amount of time fetching and carrying medications, linen and waste, walking at least 4 miles per day according to one study. Robots can significantly reduce this, giving nurses more time to focus on patient care.
AMRs are also helping to make hospitals even safer. Autonomous cleaning and disinfection robots are widely used in hospitals and sales of disinfection robots that kill germs with UV light boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some AMRs with robotic arms are able to carry out simply diagnostics – such as taking a patient’s temperature – reducing contact while medical staff determine whether a patient may have a highly infectious disease.
Telepresence robots - AMRs with video screens – are connecting doctors with patients, enabling medical staff to quickly connect with specialist consultants. Dignity Health began using telepresence robots to quickly diagnose stroke patients and now uses the machines in emergency and intensive care units at most of its 32 California hospitals. As one doctor in this video commented, “ No longer does distance affect a person’s ability to access the best care possible.”
Robots take stock in retail
AMRs are making life easier for retail staff and shoppers. They are used in warehouses to transport goods, and are increasingly used in store fronts for stock-taking, ensuring products are available and giving staff more time to focus on customers. Walmart is trialling stock-taking robots that operate while customers are in the store. AMRs are also used to provide information via touchscreen to customers on product location or to connect customers with service agents via a video.
AMRs have an increasingly wide application in public environments such as airports, hotels and shopping malls. For example, robots can deliver room service orders in hotels – a practice adopted by a number of COVID-19 quarantine hotels.
They are also providing information on gate locations and flight schedules to passengers in airports, and accompanying passengers to their gate.
Already walking – and soon talking
Research in various mobile robot technologies is proceeding at a rapid pace. With the help of vision technologies and artificial intelligence algorithms, AMRs will increasingly be able to better understand what they are seeing, and to respond appropriately, for example to an elderly person or a child. Improvements in natural language processing will enable AMRs to interact more easily with employees, patients and residents in rehabilitation and care facilities, and the public.
Most AMRs today consist of either or a mobile platform, or a complete closed system – such as room service and telepresence robots. In future, mobile robot arms attached to an AMR will give companies in different industry sectors even greater flexibility. In manufacturing, for example, AMRs with robot arms will move to different production cells and perform different tasks at them.
ABB is trialling the use of this functionality to automate repetitive and time-consuming laboratory work such preparation of medicines, loading and unloading centrifuges, pipetting and handling liquids, and picking up and sorting test tubes, freeing medical staff and lab workers from repetitive and time-consuming tasks, improving the accuracy of laboratory work and ultimately enhancing patient satisfaction and safety.