Advanced Robotics: Autonomous Solutions Take on Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous Work

Much attention has been focused on the potential loss of jobs that robotics and artificial intelligence may bring. However, advancements in robotics technology and their application in new areas can make jobs easier, more pleasant and safer. Exploring opportunities to automate the “dull, dirty and dangerous” work that humans are still doing in the digital age, we see the potential to improve the quality of work, enhance capabilities and reduce employee risks.

We may be well into the digital age, but there is no shortage of work that still requires human intervention. Some of these jobs are laborious. Others are hazardous. And some are downright repulsive. Industrial welders in heavy manufacturing, for instance, are routinely exposed to extreme heat, toxic pollutants and high noise levels.

We still send miners carrying measurement and scanning devices into small, hot spaces deep inside the earth with little air to breathe. Hospital staff are exposed to harm every day while disinfecting rooms and disposing of medical waste. In offices around the world, employees dread the hours they will spend on mundane, repetitive tasks such as claims processing, employee onboarding and new customer registration.

As we explore new ways for automation to take on difficult or undesirable work, the appetite for new robotics is increasing continuously. A premier global provider of market intelligence predicts that global spending on robotics systems and drones will hit $116 billion in 2019 and grow at a compound annual rate of 20% to $210 billion in 2022 and this growth is driven by continued improvement in ease of use as well as the demand for flexible automation across many industries.1

While there is concern about job loss, it has not discouraged companies from integrating greater artificial intelligence capabilities into their robotic solutions. As a result, opportunities are emerging for robots to work autonomously and intelligently in new and varied environments across industries. They are doing this by assimilating and analyzing increasing amounts of data flowing in from Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

A dangerous job: Transforming the power grid

For the utility industry, increasing transmission capacity and reducing power loss in aging overhead conductors is an ongoing challenge. A leading energy and telecom cable company that had millions of miles of overhead transmission lines in use recently introduced the industry’s first universal heat-dissipating technology for overhead power lines, which increases conductor capacity by 25% and reduces power loss by lowering the operating temperature by as much as 30%. The technology enables utilities to optimize the long-term performance of their power grids and strengthen their ability to supply safe, reliable and cost-effective power into the future.

While the manufacturer was able to produce new conductors with the new solution in a controlled factory environment, few utility customers were eager to replace their existing cables, given the huge investment of time and money it would require. They wanted a way to apply the technology to existing power lines without shutting down the grid.

However, their aging overhead conductors had accumulated decades of silica and carbon deposits, bird droppings, and moss that had hardened over time. Any solution would have required first cleaning the conductors, representing hundreds of thousands of miles of the grid in the United States alone, and then applying the technology.

The only existing option was to drop in linemen by helicopter to crawl across the narrow transmission wires — charged with very high-voltage electricity — to clean and coat the conductors. Instead, the company worked with Infosys to develop the world’s first intelligent cleaning and coating robots for high-voltage transmission conductors.

This was no small task. The robot had to be able to operate in a difficult environment and incorporate a cleaning method capable of scrubbing off years’ worth of deposits and yet be light enough to maneuver across the electrical lines. At the same time, it needed to be smart enough to avoid obstacles and address the varied cleaning situations it encountered.

Powered by lightweight motors to keep their weight down, the resulting robots have an advanced drive-by-wire system. They run autonomously and decide whether to go forward or backward using sophisticated, onboard, decision-making image-processing cameras. A built-in IoT gateway enables communication with ground stations to monitor battery life, speed, coating volume in storage tanks, flow , and other important metrics.

The robotic solution makes it possible for the manufacturer to deliver significant value to its customers — projected savings of up to $2 billion by avoiding cable replacements and up to $6 billion in reduced transmission losses — without risking the lives of their linemen.

Doing the dirty work: A robotic solution drives sustainability

At Infosys campuses, our goal is to reuse, recycle or responsibly dispose of waste whenever possible. We are committed to reducing the per-capita usage of energy and fresh water. We have implemented various green initiatives that include use of efficient fixtures, wastewater treatment technologies, reuse of treated wastewater, rainwater harvesting and smart meters that help us monitor our consumption in real time to eliminate water wastage.2

The wastewater treatment processes produce a significant by-product: six to seven tons of sludge every day — teeming with bacteria. That sludge, if treated, can be a great source of manure for plants and ground soil. Previously, it was left in traditional open beds where human workers manually shuffled the unhygienic byproduct until it dried. In rainy seasons, that proved to be a slow — and particularly putrid — process.

To free up employees from that task, Infosys collaborated with researchers at Leibniz University in Germany to conceptualize a solution for a fully automated sludge greenhouse that could use primarily solar energy for 95% of the required heating for drying. Trucks transport the sludge from the sewage treatment plant and dump it into an enclosed high-performance greenhouse. There, an autonomous robotic vehicle (called the “electric mole”) distributes the sludge evenly across the greenhouse floor and rakes it to ensure that the bottom layer is repeatedly brought to the surface for uniform drying. Because the sludge is corrosive in nature, the robot is a highly ruggedized vehicle that can move through the muck without damage. The system also has built-in IoT sensors so a remote operations team can monitor the processing, including temperature, humidity and sludge quality.

Manual drying could take 12 days or more, depending on humidity levels. The robot can perform the same task in less than half that time. The resulting sludge quality has also improved, producing cakes of fertilizer that are used throughout the campus.

“Our commitment to a greener planet through responsible practices powered by the intelligent use of technology to automate waste management processes just got deeper with this implementation.”

- U B Pravin Rao, Director and Chief Operating Officer, Infosys Ltd.

The solution has been rolled out in Mysuru, Bengaluru, Trivandrum, Pune and Hyderabad, where the robots can treat 3.5 million kilograms of sludge annually with no human involvement. Infosys has plans to implement the automated system in Pune, Trivandrum and Hyderabad, and has repurposed similar technology to treat chemical waste for its clients.

Eliminating dull work: An intelligent alternative for monotonous tasks

For banks and other financial services firms, ensuring that their ATMs, pin pad readers, check scanners, and other devices work properly and provide uninterrupted service, even as application features are updated, is critical. Unfortunately, testing these devices can be mind-numbingly monotonous. This kind of high-cost and unrewarding, yet critically important, task is ripe for robotic automation.

Enter the robotic arm. The physical robot, with an integrated optical character-recognition system with smart-vision assist, has the innate intelligence to conduct a reliable sequence of operations to simulate human end-user movements and interactions with machines during automated test cases. The robotic arms can test the devices on-site while being controlled by testers in remote locations. The workers schedule automatic testing and execute tasks via a web- or desktop-based utility.

The solution is not only less expensive and less prone to error than on-site human testing, but it can also test devices around the clock to enable continuous infrastructure software upgrades. The automated solution has reduced the cost of testing by 60% and increased productivity by 30% to 60%, depending on the device being tested. In addition, it has integrated seamlessly with a variety of third-party tools and architectures. A similar approach has been used to develop a robot-assisted testing program for financial services applications on smart devices.

“We see the use of autonomous technologies increasing in the payment space. This includes both robotics and software robots. The need to replace human actions with high-reliability robots for tasks that are repetitive and traditionally error prone is increasing. The market continues to repurpose [its] workforce to innovate on the customer-/user-experience side, enabling increasingly more frictionless experiences for our customers.”

– Jose Rivera, Vice President, Advanced Technology Services, Elavon Inc.

Looking ahead, there will be increasing opportunities to develop and deploy autonomous systems to take on increasingly sophisticated tasks in real-world conditions without human involvement. These intelligent robotics systems and devices — leveraging increasingly advanced AI capabilities — are being piloted and implemented across the manufacturing, mining and automotive sectors. Robots can liberate employees from mundane tasks so they can focus on work that requires their higher-level skills. More importantly, robots can take over work that poses significant risks to human health and safety.