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Don’t judge a robot by its hardware

08 November 2023

The future of robotics is all about the software, says Stéphanie Foucart.

ROBOTS THAT look and move like humans or animals often garner a lot of attention, whether it be positive or negative. This might be because they ‘look cool’ or are what people for many years have expected the robotics revolution to look like. 

However, less anthropomorphic robots that solve real problems and have impactful applications are at the forefront of industrial innovation. It’s not just the mechanics of the machine that makes robotics interesting. It’s the technology and software behind them that really unlocks their potential.

Robots in the warehouse

Advanced human-like robots, like Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, are extremely impressive innovations that are breaking ground in the robotics industry. However, as we look at work environments that can truly optimise a robot’s potential and unlock productivity through automation, such as in a warehouse environment, human-like robots aren’t necessarily fit for purpose. There simply isn’t a need for humanoid robots, and instead, wheeled or manipulative robots are a better fit for the warehouse.

This is because in this type of environment, robots need to move quickly and often over great heights and distances to support human workers with labour-intensive tasks such as picking. It’s a different kind of impressive robot, and while its hardware doesn’t have the same ‘wow factor’, its software is enabling it to have a significant impact in the warehouse – beyond its appearance. 

Software is at the heart of the automation evolution

Software as a Service (SaaS) and the internet are both decades old, and robots have played a role in the industrial environment for many years too. In recent years, all three of these elements have evolved significantly and continue to be refined, developed and innovated to improve automation in the warehouse. 

Robot software can vary between machines and their manufacturers, but common tasks that it can tell the mechanical device and electronic system to do include pathfinding, locating and manipulating objects, and data sharing. This all enables a robot to fulfil its role of optimising the warehouse environment.  

It’s only now that we’re seeing the potential of this technology in the warehouse as robotics companies bring advanced software to industrial environments, creating a connected environment that isn’t siloed. Fleets of robots across the globe, from tall, one-armed machines to fast, four-wheeled pickers, can now all be connected to a central software hub that enables engineers to run diagnostics and ensure each robot is singing from the same hymn sheet. 

Security is a priority

Just as automation is crucial in today’s warehouses, the security of internet-connected technology and automation equipment is paramount. That’s because like any other piece of technology, robots are susceptible to hacking and cyber attacks. Unfortunately, as robotics systems evolve, so do the potential threats – but just like any computer system, security is a crucial element of development to mitigate these risks.

According to the ISA Global Cybersecurity Alliance, cyber attacks increased during the pandemic, including in the manufacturing sector. Additionally, the IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index also found that the manufacturing sector accounted for 23% of cyber attack reports, making it the most targeted sector. 

If a system of robots is attacked and businesses are held to random by hackers, this can lead to significant short and long-term consequences, from data theft and product damage to human injuries. 

To combat this, new developments in robotics software are focusing on security to allay the danger of cyber threats that put data and operations at risk. It’s also important to keep in mind that for many years, companies have developed and applied extremely high standards to prevent attacks, ensure and improve security and while protecting their customers from the subsequent fallout. 

The warehouse of the future will be even more highly automated and interconnected than it is now. As the need for robotic capability expands, the accompanying software will need to continue to evolve with it. These robots might not be able to give interviews, but the work they do in the warehouse is not only invaluable, but it’s also paving the way for a safer, more productive warehouse environment. In our eyes, that’s impressive. 

Stéphanie Foucart, head of software, Exotec

For more information visit www.exotec.com