Teamwork makes the dream work: sharing the workload with Cobots

Written by Chris Froud, partner and Alex Ford, senior associate, at European Intellectual Property Firm, Withers & Rogers.

‘Cobots’ or collaborative robots that work in conjunction with humans or other automated systems to perform a task or function have gained significant ground over the past few decades within certain industrial applications.

Traditionally, cobots have been employed for work that is perceived as ‘dull, dirty or dangerous’. For example, they are often used to perform repetitive tasks, those that humans wouldn’t wish to do or dangerous tasks such as working on high-risk production lines or even carrying out bomb disposal. However, as cobots are increasingly being used in a wider variety of workspaces such as warehouses, construction sites and manufacturing production lines, it’s becoming more important to consider the degree to which they share spaces with their human colleagues and how to make these interactions as safe as possible.

For example, a warehouse cobot designed to lift heavy items and transport them to a defined destination must be able to complete its task without posing a risk to its human colleagues. As such, innovators are exploring the use of high-frequency sensors and high-reactivity braking systems, which can detect when a human crosses the path of a cobot and stop it in its tracks. The development of different types of sensors is attracting high investment activity, with safety initiatives including placing sensors on moving joints to detect changes in torque and designing joint geometries to prevent pinch points, and the further development of contact sensors designed to reduce the risk of injury as humans and cobots work together.

Further than merely detecting contact with humans, some cobots are now equipped to observe humans and to plan routes proactively to avoid humans. This is particularly known for warehouse robots, where human pickers may work among a number of travelling robots carrying heavy loads. By using lidar and other visual sensing systems, the cobots may detect humans and other cobots around them, meaning they can find the fastest and safest route for them to move around the environment.

This focus on innovation has intensified patent filing activity and companies are advised to move quickly to secure a stake in a fast-developing market. A recent patent related to cobot safety is EP3753687, which covers a control system for changing the movement of a robotic arm in response to a sensor determining contact with an external object. Another recent patent is EP3819088, which defines how a robot may construct a safety zone around a planned trajectory.

The proliferation of patent filings for robotics technologies means that innovating in this space can feel like a race. To minimise the risk that a competitor might bring their new technology to market first, innovators should aim to file patent applications as soon as possible. It can also be more difficult for new entrants to file successful applications as the more established players may already have a considerable collection of publications related to a similar technology. Over time this situation could lead to a dip in investment in this field of innovation and filing activity could start to plateau.

Sustained interest in cobots and technologies designed to improve their safety means there is a chance that standardisation could play a role in the future. For example, when Volvo shared its patented technology for the 3-point seatbelt with other automotive manufacturers in 1959, it was effectively creating standard technology for the modern motorcar. Cobot manufacturers could take a similar approach in helping to establish standard essential patents for innovators to work with and use as a basis for their development activities. This could potentially lead to licensing opportunities in the future.

Whilst the road to standardisation is not yet clear, it is vital for newcomers and smaller businesses in this market develop a multi-layered patent strategy to protect their innovations. Ultimately, the best cobots will be those that are affordable, safe and easy-to-maintain, whilst also improving process efficiencies and protecting their human colleagues. In high-risk, dirty or repetitive workplaces where time and cost go hand-in-hand, any cobot that can aid productivity and lessen the risk of injuries and sick leave will be an exciting proposition.