Super-accurate robots will save humans from painful work

Precise positioning is here! It’s a service that makes satellite navigation more accurate and reliable. Precise positioning might not sound as glamorous as AI, but it’s set to change your life, from the price of your train ticket to how – and what – you work on. 

The work question is particularly relevant, because one key sector precise positioning is set to revolutionize is robotics. When people talk about robots, they often discuss their fears of robots stealing their jobs. We wanted to find out: could robots serve as allies rather than rivals in the workplace?

12 startups recently enrolled on Accuracy Unlocked, our Precise Positioning acceleration program. We spoke to some of the robotics experts from the program to hear what precise positioning could mean for the future of robots.

We spoke to Alex Lawrence-Berkeley, the CEO of Level Five Supplies (a technology distributor in the autonomous vehicle technology ecosystem), Lukas Wiesmeier, the co-founder of Angsa Robotics (which offers an autonomous trash collection robot), Christophe Timmermans, the director of Solarcleano (a robotic solution for cleaning solar panels) and Niels Jul Jacobsen, the CEO of Capra Robotics (which creates autonomous, agile, and maneuverable mobile robot platforms).

An Angsa Robotics robot

What benefits does precise positioning afford the robotics sector that other positioning systems (local positioning, visual positioning, etc.) don’t?

Lukas: Precise positioning is useful for being able to reliably track the global location of a robot. For our use case, the user sends the robot the geographical coordinates of the area it should move within. The robot will localize itself within these boundaries and map its position accordingly. A robot can avoid obstacles safely with the help of local sensors such as odometry – however odometry does not allow the robot to be localized on a global map. GNSS is one alternative for global localization however, this is not precise enough to work for our use case.

Christophe: Yes, I’d second your point about odometry. For Solarcleano, one major issue encountered by our robots is that our robots could slide on inclined solar panels (only under certain conditions — for example, if there was a temperature of 80°c or higher or there was heavy rain or wind the robot trajectory might be altered — in such conditions, only precise positioning can enable us to adhere to the right trajectory).

As such, precise positioning is required for reliable accuracy since odometry (which is the use of data from moving sensors to estimate change in position over time) can’t really be relied upon due to the possible sliding. It also enables us to perfectly track the robot’s tasks remotely to show soiling removal of large scale solar plants and to better assess the energy yield generated.

A Capra Robotics robot

Alex: I can see how precise positioning is really helpful to your product, Christophe! Let’s talk about robotics more broadly — any reduction in the cost or power use is beneficial to both the designer and the scalability of the product. This means the products can be adopted more quickly. 

This system reduces the cost of required infrastructure by using infrastructure that is already well-established (the mobile network), as well as reducing the potential cost of the robot itself in the purchase price of its components.  The power is reduced on two fronts, firstly in terms of the energy consumed by the system, because it uses intelligent signals from the mobile network rather than via a specially-built local network (as is the current approach), and secondly in terms of the power consumed by the computer which calculates position by fusing other sources of data.  Having both of these key benefits makes robots using this approach more accessible, and it’s therefore easier to achieve greater accuracy at a lower cost, and potentially have more use between charges.

Solarcleano robot

Niels: That’s a great overview. I’d argue that the benefits can be summarized more simply: GNSS-based precise positioning is a much more stable, robust and now cheaper solution, when compared to the other sensors. Precise positioning functions better in an outdoor environment, where other solutions can be hindered by sun or rain.

Does precise positioning mean that robots are now perfectly suited to carry out work that would be tedious or dangerous for humans to do or do they still need to work in collaboration with humans?

Christophe: When it comes to fully autonomous robots driving in open areas, regulation remains conservative. Even when human intervention is not explicitly requested, it remains a legal requirement that in most situations, robots be monitored by humans. France is aiming to modify the legal framework from 2023 onwards. We imagine that in this regard, things will evolve very rapidly from this point on and autonomous robots will be assigned difficult or hazardous tasks or labour-intensive activities in fields such as mining, agriculture, cleaning, oil and gas and possibly others.

A second Capra robotics robot

Lukas: Yes, good point. I think it’s worth clarifying that there will be some limits to this. I think our autonomous trash collection robot is a good example of how robots can carry out work which is time-consuming and painful for humans. However, we do not see ourselves replacing humans in the near future. While our robot is specialized to carry out one specific task, trash collection, the work human personnel conduct in our field is a lot more diverse: replacing trash cans, cutting trees, repairing benches. As such, we see the robot as a smart way to support cleaning personnel in their day-to-day work.

Niels: I agree — we also believe that it will be more of a collaboration, where humans use robots as an advanced tool, or as a kind of foreman for a fleet of robots operating in the vicinity.

A Kingdom Technologies robotic lawn mower

We also wanted to hear how precise positioning would shape agriculture — so we spoke to Joan Kangro, the CEO of Kingdom Technologies, who offer robotic lawn mowers for large terrains.

In terms of farming, an enhanced ability to position autonomous vehicles will be key for navigating the environment and performing required tasks reliably. Precise positioning will enhance and lead to potential new applications such as robots for snow shovelling, grass cutting for large commercial areas, traffic line drawing, fruit picking and autonomous tractors.

That sounds pretty amazing. Do you think these features could also be used beyond farming?

Absolutely! Precise positioning will unlock a number of autonomous applications in city maintenance, mobility and beyond. For example, due to precise positioning, our robots can navigate the lawn in a human-like trajectory that enable them to cover areas 10-15 times larger than the competitive products, which manoeuvre on the lawn in a random pattern.  This allows us to cater to sectors beyond farming – our services can be used by golf clubs, city councils and universities to keep their grounds looking tidy.

For more information about how precise positioning is being developed at Deutsche Telekom, click here.

Want to read more about how precise positioning is changing the world? Check out our previous article about how this technology is shaking up the transport sector, plus don’t forget to follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter for more robotics insights.

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