Robotic Process Automation (RPA): The Next Wave of Productivity
Manufacturing firms have been using robots on their assembly lines for decades. But in the coming years, more and more industries will be welcoming our robotic counterparts into their workforce. The result will be a new wave of productivity through improved accuracy and efficiency, reduced costs, and improved worker safety and resource allocation.
Should we humans be worried? No—at least, not yet. Most Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotic technology will require human guidance. In fact, we should look upon robots as our friends, workers who can free us humans for more complex work, and who can do the dangerous jobs that are too risky for flesh-and-blood mortals.
Below, we look at some of the ways industry is already implementing robots and RPA for everything from weeding, to helping make travel plans, to detecting oil leaks.
Agriculture and Farming
In 2018, the OECD (the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) issued a working paper ranking industries according to vulnerability to automation. “Agricultural Labour” came in fifth, after food preparation, construction, cleaning and driving. (See the chart here.)
Robots are already helping out on the farm, and in the fields. Developed by Bosch’s Deepfield Robotics, Bonirob is a ground-level robot that is basically a mobile plant lab. The robot can decide which strains of plant are most apt to survive insects and viruses and how much fertilizer they would need. It can also detect and eliminate weeds.
Using computer vision technology (the ability to understand information from digital images and videos) to detect weeds and spray a targeted drop of herbicide onto them, micro-spraying robots could significantly reduce the amount of herbicide used in crop growing. One weeding robot, RoboCrop, doesn’t even need to use chemicals. As it is pushed by a tractor, the robot uses computer vision to detect plants, then automatically hoes the spaces between plants to uproot the weeds. Other weeding robots use lasers to kill the weeds.
The LettuceBot also uses computer vision to detect lettuce plants and decide which plants to keep and which to remove. Other pruning ‘bots include Wall-Ye, an autonomous vineyard robot able to prune grape vines.
Many of these robots are attached to a tractor. Autonomous tractors are becoming popular too. These tractors autonomously follow human-driven harvesters to collect the grain.
In general, robots in professional services, including finance, tend to be more AI-and algorithm-based and less treads-on-the-ground.
Robo-advisors are AI-powered platforms that automate asset management. They perform the work of financial advisors in the investing process by collecting info about investor’s financial goals and level of risk they’re willing to incur.
Chatbots backed by conversational AI abilities can use big data and machine learning to detect fraud, manage risks, ensure regulatory compliance, and make stock predictions.
Already involved with assembling, packing, and handling, robots are increasingly managing inventory, compensating for worker shortages, and extending operations for retail operations. Companies are developing (or have already developed) robots that can retrieve items from warehouse shelves and scan codes for inventory management.
In-store bots can help people find items or even retrieve items for customers. Roaming the aisles of Walmart, retail robots identify problems with the labels on shelves. When they find errors, they alert humans to fix the problems.
In Japan, Nestlé has used a humanoid robot called Pepper in department stores to sell coffee makers. Designed by SoftBank, Pepper has a human-like face and a tablet on its chest; the robot understands about 80 percent of conversations. Additionally, it can use the information it picks up to further help customers.
As automation and self-service play an increasingly vital role in the customer experience, the use of robots in the hospitality industry can lead to improvements in speed, cost-effectiveness, and accuracy.
Chatbots allow a hotel or travel company to have 24/7 support through online chat or IM services. And robots like the Hilton chain’s Connie Concierge Robot can speed up the check-in process, reducing congestion.
In travel-planning, Amadeus’ 1A-TA (an adaptation of SoftBank’s Pepper) can pre-qualify customers about their needs and preferences before they talk to a human travel agent. Even more impressive is Knightscope, which designs security robots that can be used in airports to detect concealed weapons. The company’s robots have also been deployed in malls, hospitals, and casinos to watch for suspicious behaviour through technology like thermal anomaly detection.
Robots may prove to be even more valuable in the energy sector. Automated workers can reach places that are too remote, and perform work which is too dangerous or tedious, for humans. By sending in the robots to do the repetitive, mundane tasks, companies can free workers for other, more rewarding work. And robots will increasingly benefit the oil and gas industry’s bottom line; a 2017 Frost & Sullivan report stated that “with the combined effort of drones and robots, upstream operational cost can be significantly reduced.”
The industry has begun experimenting with robots. In 2018, it was announced that an autonomous robot would be deployed to an oil and gas platform in the North Sea. The machine would be used for visual inspections and detecting oil and gas leaks, a primary hazard management concern.
Along with inspection and leak detection, the applications of robotics in oil rigs may include remote sensing, underwater welding, operation and maintenance.
With the use of more robots for increasingly complex tasks, we all stand to benefit from better working conditions, reduced operating costs, and, perhaps, better lettuce.