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The European Union must have a robotics innovation hub where small and medium-sized enterprises that collaborate with others in their businesses will be able to test new robotic applications. With this message, Bram Vanderborght of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel opened the discussion between experts on the future of the collaborative robot industry during the European Innovation Days last week in Brussels.

It is expected that millions of euros from the Horizon Europe innovation fund will go towards the development of this hub. The Horizon Research Fund is worth a total of around 100 billion euros.

Not very many small companies are testing robots

According to Vanderborght, it is primarily large companies that are now taking part in European-funded innovative robotics projects with a view to improving their business processes. Smaller companies usually do not have the opportunities to do this. They miss the boat as a consequence.

The development of collaborative robots for enabling companies to work faster, better or more comfortably, is in reality still very much in its infancy here in Europe. There are no proper rules yet for outlining what an autonomous operating robot may and may not do. Such as what data it may or may not collect from its work environment and how it should deal with it.

Moreover, there is a problem with liability, Vanderborght states. Here in Brussels, an experiment is currently underway in a factory where robots are not allowed to do certain work because they cannot be insured against liability. Agreements have to be made with insurers on these matters.

‘Fear of robots is not warranted’

The chief technology officer of the Italian robot multinational¬†Comau (part of FiatChrysler), Pietro Ottavis, states that collaborative robots will be widely used in the automotive industry in about ten years time. By then they will be more accessible than they are today. They will be mobile, portable and intelligent,” he predicts. “Robots are tools for human beings. There’s nothing to be afraid of. After all, humankind has been using tools for more than 100,000 years.”

Examples of the kind of collaborative robots that he is referring to are robots that help on the shop floor by packing products at temperatures below freezing. Think about butchers. This is not a pleasant job for people. It is not healthy to have to work in a very cold room all the time.”

Lost suitcases at the airport

Another example that can relieve people of heavy work is a robot that helps to sort and retrieve lost suitcases and bags at airports. We are all familiar with that problem,” says Ottavis. The staff won’t have to do the heavy lifting any longer. What’s more, there’s a good chance that a robot will look and find something more quickly.

Professor Sigrid Brell-Cokcan from the German University of Aachen, and chairperson of the Association for Robots in Architecture, says that she has seen robots in China assisting in housing construction. She anticipates this development for Europe as well. The use of robots makes work in the construction industry safer. Almost one fifth of all accidents occur in the construction industry. It is safer to let robots do the heavy work. People who work there, such as construction workers, won’t have to suffer anymore from complaints with their lungs, hands or other body parts. They will no longer have to retire at the age of 50 because their body is worn out by heavy work.”

Robot construction workers

Robot construction workers should also make houses cheaper in the future. In addition, healthcare institutions will save money because they will no longer have to treat injured construction workers.

A major problem that European robot companies have yet to resolve is that there are no unequivocal rules governing the production of robots nor for the software used to program them. We have to have these, Vanderborght says. A robotic arm from one manufacturer must be able to connect to a robotic component from another manufacturer.

Uniform EU regulations needed for robots

The various robots must also be able to work together. Their interfaces must be better connected so that they are able to work fast. At present, they are still working too slowly, which means that their productivity is not high enough,” says Minna Lanz, Finnish professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tampere. The robots also need to be able to comprehend the regulations themselves. They are required to work safely according to the regulations as well. In the meantime, Europeans need be trained in the use of robots and, if necessary, overcome the fear of using them.

Competition from Asia

All parties concerned must be involved in drafting the regulations for robots: the companies that make robots, but also consumers who can thereby indicate what they find acceptable and what they do not consider to be acceptable. If these rules are not put in place in the near future, the EU could lose its leading position in the world of robotics to countries in Asia, EU senior official Lucilla Sioli says. According to Professor Vanderborght, the development of the European robotics market is therefore a top economic priority.