Collaborative robotics

Woman holding articulated robotic arm over an array of test tubes

Collaborative robotics is a rapidly emerging field, and one that will transform the way we work with robots. Collaborative robots (or cobots) are designed to operate safely in close proximity to humans, enabling combination of the unique perceptual and cognitive abilities of the human, and the repeatability, precision, and lifting capabilities of the robot.

In this way, cobots can be used to augment the abilities of the human, removing them from dangerous, repetitive and strenuous activities. In return, human co-workers support the robots by guiding them through novel and unpredictable situations.

Whereas automation is generally suited to very repetitive processes (high-volume and high speed), the ability to work alongside, and with, humans will give rise to much more flexible processes that can vary over time.

This flexibility comes from 3 main sources:

  1. The reprogrammable nature of robots, which allows a single machine to perform numerous different tasks.

  2. Superfluous segregation. Traditionally, people have been separated from robots by safety cages and exclusion zones, which constrain the robot to a specific area and task. By removing the safety cages, robots and their workspaces, can be more easily be moved and reconfigured for new tasks.

  3. A major limitation of robotics is their ability to adapt to change, or handle unexpected events; by comparison, humans excel at this. Working together, the human operator can help the robot overcome these limitations.

This flexibility makes cobotics a particularly accessible technology, as they require less space, and can fulfill more roles.

At present, however, collaborative robotics is still at an early stage of deployment, with initial applications focusing on the removal of safety cages and exclusion zones, allowing humans and robots to work in shared spaces. As the technology continues to develop, new ways of working, and more collaborative applications will become available, ultimately providing very flexible semi-autonomous systems with a high degree of physical human-robot collaboration.

The nature of these systems requires consideration of a wide range of factors prior to deployment, including the robot platform, processes, interfaces, control systems, safety, and human factors. Our work in this area pulls together the wide ranging expertise in Sheffield, to develop not only the robotic technologies required to support these processes, but also to consider the impact this technology will have on users, and how we can support their needs.

Our research includes:

  • Responsible innovation – engaging with end users to ensure their needs and concerns regarding the technology and its implementation are addresses (for example, safety and impact on jobs).

  • Intuitive interfaces – language-independent graphical information, speech and dialogue interfaces, intuitive robot behaviours.

  • Human factors – user surveys and participant experiments to study the impact of technologies on acceptance, trust, and attitudes towards robots.

  • Behaviour recognition – tracking and predicting behaviours of robots and people, and tailoring responses to the user.

  • Reconfigurable robotics – that can change physical configuration to support a wider range of processes.

  • Safety and verification – to ensure process safety, and adherence to specifications.


An overview of our work on collaborative robotics for manufacturing

A demonstration of human-robot collaboration, using the human’s perceptual and cognitive abilities supplemented by the precision of the robot. The task here is to remove parts from a series of narrow tubes: the worker selects the part to be removed and manually positions the robot near to the relevant tube; the robot refines the position (based on prior knowledge of the tube positions) and retrieves the part with a smooth vertical movement.