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collaborative robot (cobot)

A collaborative robot, also known as a cobot, is a robot that is capable of learning multiple tasks so it can assist human beings. In contrast, autonomous robots are hard-coded to repeatedly perform one task, work independently and remain stationary.

Today, advances in mobile technology, machine vision, cognitive computing and touch technology (including collision avoidance) are making it possible for small, lower-power robots to be aware of their surroundings and perform multiple types of tasks safely in close proximity to human workers. A cobot, when working side by side a human, can quickly learn tasks through demonstration and reinforcement learning.

As of this writing, the majority of industrial robots are still autonomous. They are expensive, large and reside behind barriers for safety reasons. Although industrial robots have played an important role in the automotive industry and its suppliers, their high cost, large size, weight and complex programming requirements have limited their use in other vertical industries.  Another barrier to adoption is the cultural fear of robots dominating the workplace and replacing human employees.

Cobots are purposely designed to address this fear. A collaborative robot is not intended to augment the human worker's capabilities, not take the place of a human worker. In many cases, the cobot takes the form of an arm, providing the worker with an extra set of hands.

Today, collaborative robots are currently used in several vertical industries, including manufacturing, supply chain management and healthcare. They generally have lower power requirements than their large, autonomous counterparts, are often mobile and use collision detection to prevent injury to their human colleagues and other cobots.

Popular collaborative robot manufacturers include Universal Robots, KUKA, Rethink Robotics and Franka.

This was last updated in June 2018

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