The future of robot/human interaction

13th of July 2021 Article by Michel Spruijt
The future of robot/human interaction

Michel Spruijt, general manager and vice-president of BrainCorp Europe, looks at the new working relationship between robots and humans and how these intelligent machines are now changing the way businesses operate.

Robots are no longer an aspiration of the sci-fi enthusiast but are now firmly integrated into our industries and ever more increasingly into our everyday lives. They aren't what we might have been led to believe was on its way - the impenetrable armies assembled in rows facing a tyrant master or even a more benign vision of ranks of programmed butlers.

No, most of the real robots working amongst us are busy making light work of monotonous and strenuous tasks without any fuss and making our lives that bit safer and day-to-day operations more efficient.

Technology almost across the board has seen hockey stick progress over the last half a century. Artificial intelligence has emerged as a front runner, able to power the next generation of machines and systems, evaluate innumerable data points, and make reasoned decisions on how to function optimally in real-time.

The introduction of autonomous robots

Using advancements in AI-powered operating systems, robots are no longer constrained to tightly controlled, out-of-the-way environments where they simply replicate tasks exactingly. Instead, they are now able to be deployed in dynamic, public environments, operating alongside humans in spaces that are ever-changing. In retail stores, malls, stations, schools, and airports, floor cleaning duties are increasingly being carried out by intelligent machines which can navigate spaces and carry out their tasks autonomously.

Cleaning staff are able to work alongside their co-bot colleagues but with more available time to tend to tasks of higher importance and specialisation such as sanitising high-contact surfaces or dealing with customer enquiries.

Autonomous robots aren't replacing humans in the work they do but in many cases supporting them, taking on more time-consuming and risk-prone tasks that can often be a hazard for employees. In a recent study by The Health and Safety Executive in the UK, slips, trips, and falls were reported as the most common work-related injuries that are non-fatal. These injuries are most common to those who work on the cleaning side of a business as they are more often exposed to slippery surfaces.

One of the notable ways Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) have shifted the way things are done in the cleaning sector is how hygiene can be managed and measured. Verifiable cleaning is especially important in a post-pandemic world where many consumers have become hyper-aware of their safety in public spaces.

In a recent report by Accenture, it was found that 64 per cent of respondents are fearful of their health now that they have experienced the pandemic, while 82 per cent fear for the health of those around them. And while retail footfall in bricks and mortar stores has been the lowest we've ever seen, 67 per cent of respondents have faith that companies will ‘build back better' by investing in long-term, sustainable, and fair solutions.

A chance to shine

The benefits of integrating robotics into work environments to improve both operational efficiency and employee and public safety have been increasingly apparent as leaders have accelerated their move to assistive technologies. From ensuring workers can be kept safely away from front lines to ensuring efficient operations where performance can be accurately tracked, robots have proved their worth even to the most sceptical.

Within the retail environment, aisles are being automated with the clustering of multiple robotic applications, including autonomous floor scrubbers, shelf scanning, delivery tugs and vacuums. These can be controlled collectively from a centralised, cloud-connected platform, ensuring machines are easy to deploy and manage safely at scale.

By using autonomous cleaning robots, business owners can ensure operational reliability with fewer concerns about filling gaps related to absenteeism and labour shortages and valuable man-hours can be reclaimed and refocused on important tasks.

According to Brain Corp data, throughout 2020 AMRs for cleaning created 3.3 million additional hours of productivity for workers in various high-traffic public locations.

With machines able to analyse and provide, where needed, detailed ‘proof of work' data that is almost impossible to get manually, business owners can closely track performance and utilisation metrics to inform better process management.

Robots are here to stay, but they won't take your job

As more robots are deployed in workforces, it is easy to think they are taking over the jobs of humans. But the reality is, these intelligent machines can't work without their human co-workers. The latest generation of autonomous mobile robots have been designed to be simple to use, yes, but they will still need humans to train and continually maintain them, work out where they need to be deployed, and monitor and leverage the unique operational data they provide.

The idea is that these robots will work alongside their human counterparts, taking on more of the heavy lifting, allowing humans to be promoted to tasks that will utilise their skill sets better - tasks that robots can't do. They are becoming the partners that help and allow us all to do so much more than we are capable of doing alone.

In a recent study by RetailWire and BrainCorp, it was found that 73 per cent of supply chain managers see robots as being an important component in business in the future. It also found that nearly half of all retailers surveyed plan to have an in-store robotic automation project in place within the next 18 months.

The reality is, if a business is keen to succeed and future-proof its operations, it will need to accelerate its robotic investment strategies, according to Rian Whitton at ABI Research.

There are a number of advances coming with robotics and technology in our future that will continuously bring about new and improved ways for businesses to operate - everything from virtual video tours enabling remote viability to point-to-point mobile delivery, all alongside an increasing amount of data-focused applications and stronger data collection capabilities.

Autonomous mobile robots are no longer a novelty - they are quickly becoming a necessity. Their ability to interact with humans safely in unpredictable environments is a testament to their value, offering a new and higher standard of trackability and around-the-clock cleaning in facilities of all types.

These machines have changed how hygiene is managed and are positioned to gain widespread adoption in the coming years. As the world heals from Covid-19 and adapts to manage its variants better, we will all have to evolve with the changes and challenges it has brought with it.

Those who have come to understand the value of technology and automation and ultimately adopted early innovations such as AMRs will be the ones who set themselves up to benefit from them the most for years to come.

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