Collaborative Robots (Cobots)

What Are Cobots?

A collaborative robot (cobot) is a robot that can work alongside humans through direct interaction without conventional safeguarding fences. The benefits of direct human interaction with cobots include:

  • Safe execution of complex tasks
  • High production quality
  • Intuitive and user-friendly cobot teaching and programming

The concept of cobots, or “intelligent assist devices,” emerged from research projects and companies in the automotive industry, where cobots provided the power to move heavy objects, guided by human intervention. These systems ensured safe use of the cobots’ assistive capabilities. Over the years, cobots have been developed to perform tasks including:

An intelligent bin-picking cobot programmed using MATLAB.

Six black boxes in a bin identified using YOLO and labeled with probability to enable cobot picking and packing.

Object detection in MATLAB using YOLO.

Six MATLAB plots showing pose estimation of the black boxes to enable cobot manipulation.

Pose estimation of objects in MATLAB using iterative closest point (ICP) point cloud registration.

Benefits of Cobots

In conventional industry automation, robots must be separated from physical human contact to ensure reliable functioning without causing physical harm to human operators. In these systems, robots operate in entirely human-free zones or within cages.

Flexible Automation

Constraining robots to cages limits their capabilities. Current markets demand reduced lead times and mass customization. These demands have stimulated interest in flexible and multipurpose manufacturing systems through human and robot collaborations while ensuring worker safety. In flexible and collaborative automation, cobots augment and enhance human capabilities with strength, precision, and data analytic capabilities that add value for the cobot end users. Cobot are intended to achieve:

  • Coexistence — shared workspace with human workers to optimize a process
  • Collaboration — flexible automation for various tasks with human engagement

Safety System

Safety fences present a technological barrier to the broader adoption of robots. Cobots are designed to satisfy safety requirements with intrinsic safety designs that allow safe interaction between the cobot and objects in its workspace (e.g., the ISO® 10218-1 standard). Cobots reduce the inertia exposed in potential collisions and contain compliant components such as joint torque sensors to absorb the energy of undesired impacts. Furthermore, cobot developers employ a large variety of external sensors (e.g., cameras, laser, and depth) and fuse the acquired data to enable reliable recognition of human-robot proximity and gestures.

Cobot Programming with Advanced Algorithms and AI

Technology gaps remain that hinder the development of cobots that meet the full set of requirements. Advanced algorithms are needed for cobots to achieve their potential for manufacturing in high-mix, low-volume production environments. Cobots must be able to perform in unfamiliar situations without explicit instructions by perceiving their environment independently using deep learning. The cobot’s motion planner allows the cobot to achieve a target position, and collision avoidance algorithms enable reactive behavior in dynamic environments, based on local knowledge provided by sensors as the cobot moves.

A cobot puts a cardboard package on a conveyer belt.

Universal Robots Cobot Support from MATLAB

Design, simulate, test, and deploy UR cobot applications

Applications of Cobots

Cobots are transforming multiple industries by operating in conjunction with human workers, advanced robotics algorithms, and AI, thereby improving productivity and reducing costs. Their application areas include:

  • Automotive industry: Cobots assist in assembly, bin picking, and inspection, improving production quality and speed.
  • Warehouse and factory automation: Cobots automate sorting, picking, and packing tasks, enhancing order fulfillment efficiency.
  • Electronics manufacturing: Cobots assemble delicate components and conduct precision tests, adapting to high-mix, low-volume production.
  • Food and beverage processing: Cobots are used for packaging, palletizing, de-palletizing, and quality control while minimizing product damage.
  • Pharmaceutical production: Cobots handle sensitive materials and assist in packaging, ensuring compliance with regulatory standards.

These applications demonstrate cobots’ flexibility and their role in advancing manufacturing and production processes.

Cobot Design with MATLAB and Simulink

MATLAB® and Simulink® provide a full set of tools that enable you to:

  • Use sensor models, such as camera, lidar, and IMU, to prototype how your cobot senses an environment.
  • Perceive the cobot’s environment using deep learning and computer vision.
  • Teach your cobot motions using Inverse Kinematics Designer and motion planning.
  • Design, iterate, and optimize motion controllers for safe interaction with your cobots.
  • Model system control logic and evaluate autonomous algorithms for your cobot applications.
  • Connect and control cobots from Kinova® and Universal Robots using MATLAB.
  • Automatically generate production code to deploy to cobot controllers and onboard computers.

See also: MATLAB and Simulink for robotics, MATLAB and Simulink for robot manipulators, Robotics System Toolbox™, Navigation Toolbox™, ROS Toolbox, Simscape Multibody™, Deep Learning Toolbox™, robot programming

“The integration of MATLAB, Simulink, and Deep Learning Toolbox gave us the confidence to move forward with the MBSE digital twin project.”

Dr. T. John Koo, ASTRI