While drones and robots may have once evoked a sense of fantasy and science fiction, these devices may be starting to prove their potential as major contributors to business and everyday life. And today, the widespread effort to limit human contact due to the Covid-19 pandemic could perhaps accelerate those trends, as robots are deployed for a variety of public safety uses—from assisting doctors and delivering supplies to sterilizing public spaces.
According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), industrial robots—or devices programmed to conduct repetitive manufacturing tasks—have been around for almost 60 years. However, it wasn’t until the more sophisticated use of artificial intelligence (AI) that modern robots acquired more advanced capabilities like navigating unpredictable obstacles and autonomous decision-making.
Today, drones are used for photography, security surveillance, weather and environmental monitoring, as reported by CB Insights. We’re also seeing robots fill more sophisticated roles in factories and assisting in homes and offices.
A high-speed cellular connection over 5G could enhance robots’ potential even more, enabling operators to control, reprogram and communicate with machines remotely while enhancing use cases where real-time agility is a priority—delivering packages or groceries or dispensing medication, for example.
Safer Deliveries With Less Human Contact
Delivery drones and small robotic delivery trucks could play an increasingly important role as the e-commerce industry grows. In fact, industry analyst Technavio forecasts a growth in the autonomous delivery robot market of almost $17 billion between 2020 and 2024. And with steady online sales during the Covid-19 pandemic, robot and drone deliveries could offer a safer alternative to human couriers while also potentially reducing costs.
In the early days of the pandemic, for example, robots were drafted in China to conduct contactless grocery drops. Plans are also underway to combine walking robots and self-driving cars in order to conduct the final step of delivering packages from cars to customers’ doorsteps.
As robots become more common, ensuring safety is an essential part of the equation. In early 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced new regulations requiring airplanes and helicopters to broadcast their positions using onboard radio equipment (called ADS-B Out), making it easier for a drone operator to ensure devices avoid air traffic. Currently, the FAA is developing a process for remotely identifying drones—a kind of electronic license plate system. Once this system is implemented, we’ll be closer to widespread autonomous package delivery and similar operations that fly over people and beyond the line of sight, according to the IEEE. A North Carolina hospital is currently using drones to ferry medical samples across campus, but only within the operators’ visual range until the FAA grants permission for longer journeys. Aware Vehicles, one of the startups in the 2020 T-Mobile Accelerator program, is developing AI technology that will help enable autonomous drone vehicles to operate without human intervention.
Greater Freedom For The Homebound
Unlike their sci-fi representations, most real robots aren’t human in appearance and instead take the configuration most suited to their tasks. One exception, however, is a “social robot”—intended as a companion or used for education or care.
High-functioning robots available 24/7 could help homebound individuals with a variety of jobs, like cleaning or opening doors. From a medical perspective, they could test vital signs, dispense medication or call for emergency assistance. If this means that patients or the aging population can retain their independence, consumers might be interested. In fact, Pew Research found that 41% of Americans would consider a robot caregiver.
In the future, a robot could even assist with transportation within or outside the home, replacing traditional mobility aids to offer people more freedom. Robots could also have conversational skills and serve as companions for people living alone.
Taking Disease Prevention To The Streets
Sanitation robots—those specifically adapted for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces—aren’t novel, but Covid-19 has transformed them from a luxury into a vital tool. Today, devices use either ultraviolet (UV) light or disinfectant sprays to sterilize surfaces.
What does this process look like? And how might 5G enhance it? Commanded over 5G, robots could form fleets capable of working silently and autonomously through the night to clean and sterilize.
One example of a company harnessing 5G and AI to orchestrate this type of operation is Unmanned Life—another 2020 T-Mobile Accelerator member—whose 5G-based AI platform deploys integrated teams of commercial drones and robots that collaborate on various functions including Covid-19 prevention.
A Robot Workforce To Boost Safety
The 5G factory use case also illustrates the potential of robots—an example of how robot workers could make workplaces safer for human employees. Although 5G-enabled factories are barely getting started, the pandemic may accelerate industry interest in factory automation as an avenue for boosting industrial output in today’s challenging era.
Robots that are not tethered to conventional wired control networks are both flexible and rapidly reconfigurable, while automatic guided vehicles—a type of robot delivery device—can coordinate with each other and with the broader production line to deliver components with unprecedented precision. With these self-coordinating processes, collaborative robots (or cobots) could enhance factory safety and efficiency.
Looking Toward An Automated Future
It’s possible that the era of the robot is arriving, and with much less fuss than we might have expected. Autonomous helpers, augmented by 5G connectivity, are already starting to transform and protect our lives in ways that even science fiction couldn’t have predicted.
To learn how the 5G era can help power this automated future, check out “Let’s talk about spectrum: how more bands make a better network.”