Collaborative automation supported by ‘cobots’ appears to be the agri-tech answer to many of the region’s problems.

Gone are the days of large and bulky traditional industrial robots that typically required hefty investments for programming and maintenance works.

Usually designed for a fixed operation and costly to repurpose, traditional industrial robots also do best for high-volume repetitive tasks requiring no human intervention. In specific cases where human judgement is still needed, robots lose their appeal.

Fortunately, next-generation robots that are designed to collaborate with humans are already here. These ‘cobots’ (Collaborative Robots) are easier to program or reprogram, are easier to install and repurpose, can be used for low-volume production, and thrive on working alongside humans to improve process efficiency while leveraging human insights.

If they are so great, why are factories all not converting to cobots? Can they be deployed in agricultural settings? We find out more from a cobot expert, James McKew, Regional Director (Asia-Pacific), Universal Robots:

James McKew, Regional Director, APAC, Universal Robots

DigiconAsia: What cobot applications would complement the activities of urban farmers?

JM: Agriculture, like any other industry, is continuously evolving. As the trade becomes more urban and digitalized, more automation will become status quo.

Agriculture-related tasks typically require a delicate touch to handle, for example, fragile flowers and fruits, or pollination. Such activities requiring high precision and concentration may be a challenge for human workers after a prolonged period of time.

On the other hand, cobots can perform such tasks effortlessly, consistently and repeatedly without fail, with higher throughput. This will free human agricultural crew to move forward to manage more important tasks that require cognitive and social talents. 

DigiconAsia: How could cobots complement urban farming to address climate change concerns?

JM: Amid the pressure to manage climate change concerns, food security concerns, agri-tech and urban farming will take center stage over the next few years.

With existing government initiatives and farmers demanding a perfect man-machine collaboration in urban farming, cobots will continue to make tremendous advances in this space.

As the pioneer in the market, Universal Robots has developed a global distribution network and an entirely new business model to allow the introduction of cobots to enterprises of all sizes. Cobots will continue to revolutionize operations in urban farming and offer ways to ensure business continuity during uncertain times while maintaining a safe and collaborative workplace environment. 

DigiconAsia: Would the cost of cobots prevent it from making a broad impact in the Asia Pacific region as a whole?

James McKew (JM): Asia has been the strongest market for robots, led by China with over 783,000 robots, followed by Japan with 355,000 robots. Cobots, with an average payback period as short as 12 months, are now affordable to even small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). For the upfront cost, cobots offer all the benefits of advanced robotic automation while eliminating the traditional associated costs of programming, setup, or need for dedicated work cells. 

This should accelerate the impact of cobots in Asia. For instance, one SME was facing a challenging work environment due to growing wages, space constraints, towering real estate prices, and safety concerns. Following the deployment of cobots, the SME now manages with one human operator tending to two machines, with cost reductions and a payback period of just 15 months. 

DigiconAsia: How do government policies influence the introduction of cobots into their countries’ agricultural industries?

JM: According to a report released by The Asia Food Challenge, Asia’s population will expand another 250 million by 2030. The growing population brings about new challenges in the agricultural and food landscapes. With more mouths to feed, countries that rely heavily on imports have a challenge to contend with.

Moving forward, as cobots get introduced into the agricultural landscape, robotics education needs to become more prevalent.

We have set up a Universal Robots Academy to support learners and urban farming aspirants with free online training modules, webinars and video tutorials in 16 languages.

To ensure a sustainable future for Asia, governments can set policies to make cobots more accessible to farmers regardless of their language or robotics background. Subsidies, grants and other funding programs can further aid farmers in the deployment of collaborative automation. 

DigiconAsia: How can cobots help APAC to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and future epidemics?

JM: Already, the pandemic has increased the use of collaborative automation in the medical sector. Contributing to the global response of the pandemic, cobots have been successfully deployed in critical frontlines of healthcare, sanitization, and medical equipment. 

For instance, Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University has launched the ‘eXtremeDisinfection roBOT’ (XDBOT). This is a mobile collaborative bot that can perform environmental deep cleaning without the need for direct human contact.

In Taiwan, Brain Navi Biotechnology has developed the world’s first autonomous nasal swab test robot using a cobot. The throat and nasal swab cobots protect healthcare workers by reducing staff-patient contact at the point of testing.

DigiconAsia thanks James for his insights.