Analysis: Robots are ready for sidewalks and agriculture—but the road is full of stumbling blocks

Illustration: Capra robotics

After living a quiet indoor life in controlled industrial environments for years, robots are starting to be ready to move outdoors into more dynamic and uncontrolled environments, such as construction sites, agricultural land, sidewalks, or hospitals.

If it was up to a number of Danish companies and the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), the next big Danish robot adventure would be targeted at the big, difficult tasks that today cannot be automated.

At the old Lindø shipyard, SDU and a number of companies have just kick-started the research and development project Large Structure Production, which will develop modular robotics and automation solutions for big tasks within the construction, shipbuilding, and energy sectors.

The upcoming robotics centre is, in a way, a return to the good old days at Lindø in the 1980s and 1990s, which was known for diligent experimentation and development of advanced robotics systems, for example for welding ships.

Several of the new large super hospitals will also have internal robotics systems for cleaning and logistics, and Aalborg University has just launched a large 5G project, which will ensure stable wireless networks so the robot management can be moved into an edge cloud, and the computing power will grow significantly.

The necessary technologies, such as 5G and cloud services, are starting to be so reliable and mature that they can be used in industrial environments with extremely high requirements for guaranteed response times and uptime. The challenge is that safety procedures have not kept up with the developments, and therefore Danish robotics and automation manufacturers risk banging their heads against a wall when the equipment needs to be safety approved and receive permits so that it can be put into operation on e.g. sidewalks.

Regulatory stumbling blocks

Two regulatory stumbling blocks could hinder the use of robots outdoors. This summer, a new testing scheme came into force, which will make it possible to allow small slow-moving robots to roam in public areas, e.g. sidewalks, parking lots, and the like.

So far, only a single municipality has requested permission to put the small new mobile robot from Aarhus’s Capra Robotics to collect cigarette butts on sidewalks and squares. With just one request in six months, the testing scheme may end up the same way as testing schemes for self-driving vehicles, where long case processing times and rigid rules have slowed down several projects.

Back in 2018, three shuttle buses from French company EasyMile were bought with the aim of having them drive autonomously at DTU in Kongens Lyngby. But the buses ended up collecting dust in the garage for several years because the authorities in Denmark spent a very long time approving the experiments.

Instead, much of the development and testing work today has moved to neighbouring countries such as Germany, Sweden, Norway, or Finland, where the regulatory process is more flexible.

Out in the Danish fields, small autonomous robots are also ready to take over the task of sowing, weeding and spraying—without any human supervision. Within just a few years, several Danish robotics manufacturers with a focus on agriculture have emerged.

But legislation is lagging behind in this area as well. Although there is a large number of standards regarding the safe use of autonomous agricultural robots, the legislation is still unclear. Among other things, because it has not been legally defined which category an agricultural robot actually falls into.

“Is it a drone, a mobile robot, a tractor, or a driverless truck? Unfortunately, it’s not yet so well defined, so we spend a lot of resources on risk assessments,” as Ole Green, founder of the robotics company Agrointelli, has previously said.

The gray zone arises because agricultural land is, as a rule, open to the public. It is thus covered by the Road Traffic Act, although the amount of people that wander in such areas is extremely limited.

Looking closer to home

But it is not only the authorities that the robotics industry can blame for restrictive regulations. The second pitfall are the industry’s own safety rules and standards. Today, getting a robot that moves freely in a production environment safety approved can seem overwhelming. While the heavy industrial robots can be approved with the help of safety fencing and light curtains, it is completely different when it comes to robots that can work without shielding.

Each time the environment changes, a new safety assessment must be performed, and this de facto shifts the responsibility from the integrator to the end user of the robot. Large companies such as Danfoss, Grundfos, and Novo Nordisk can handle this just fine—they have independent robotics departments. But the task quickly becomes unmanageable and unprofitable for a small robotics factory.

It becomes even more difficult if the robot is to be able to move around a construction site or a parking lot, and it is managed in the cloud, which the researchers from Aalborg University want to test together with the robotics manufacturer MiR.

Technically, there is nothing that prevents one today from building robots that contain only a power supply and a network modem, while the rest is managed in the cloud. As the management moves into the cloud, access to computing power and the ability to quickly learn from surroundings increases.

But more computing power and stable network connections will not get us far if they cannot be safety approved. This was achieved on the consumer side, where robotic lawnmowers and robot vacuum cleaners drive around gardens and living rooms without any kind of comprehensive independent safety assessments.

If the professional robots are to be released outdoors and allowed at construction sites, harbours, or in other open work areas, we will need to revaluate and rethink the way in which the robots are safety approved.

Perhaps the robotics industry can look to the automotive industry and self-driving cars. Today, there are cars with adaptive cruise control controlled by radar on Danish roads, which are more autonomous than many robots that are safety approved for industrial use.