Factory Robots: Better Safe Than Sorry
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A Massachusetts company believes lidar technology could be the key to developing a safer factory robot—and to enabling those robots to take on many of the remaining tasks still completed by human workers.
Lidar is far from a new technology, but the bulk of recent investment in the laser-based system went toward self-driving systems that could sense obstacles around them. Veo Robotics, however, applied similar technology to the assembly line, where robots and human workers must operate in close proximity to each other.
Bloomberg reports that the company's proprietary system creates real-time, 3D maps of factory environments. When the lidar detects a person getting closer to an assembly line robot, the machine automatically slows down and eventually stops. The system also halts the robot if lidar is unable to discern what is happening in its environment.
Although factories widely deploy robots, the report notes that the costs associated with protecting human workers generally keeps them out of the final stages of an assembly line.
Joe Gemma, the U.S. chief executive for Kuka, told Bloomberg that final assembly is the "holy grail of automation." The company is among the major industrial robot makers helping Veo test its technology on everything from aircraft assembly to oil and natural gas extraction.
Veo, founded in 2016 as the cost of sensor technology plummeted, reported raising $12 million from venture investment firms about one year ago and plans to begin shipping its systems to customers this year. The system can be installed in less than one day and, at about $40,000, is about one-tenth the cost of industrial robots themselves.
The system would mark "the end of fear" around massive, fast-moving industrials robots, says co-founder Patrick Sobalvarro. He projects the company could hit $1 billion in annual revenue in as few as five years.
Veo engineers also insist that although robots could soon be doing even more of the heavy lifting around the factory, human workers would still be needed to ensure the successful completion of final assembly.
—Andy Szal for Thomas