Collaborative robotics have come a long way. Not so long ago they were dismissed by many in industry as being little more than toys. Today they represent a growing portion of the robotics market. According to the International Federation of Robots (IFR), collaborative robots comprise about 3 percent of all robot sales; but that number is expected to jump to 34 percent by 2025.
Evidence of the growing use of collaborative robots (also known as cobots) was seen at Automation World’s annual conference this year, as collaborative robots—particularly those from Universal Robots—were highlighted in more than one presentation.
Universal Robots has been one of the primary companies at the forefront of the collaborative robotics movement and their efforts are being recognized this year with the recent Robotic Industries Association (RIA) announcement that Esben Østergaard will be a recipient of the Engelberger Robotics Award. Østergaard is the co-founder and chief technology officer at Universal Robots, where he directs the development of Universal Robots’ collaborative robot arms.
Østergaard is the first person associated with a collaborative robotics company to receive the Engelberger Robotics Award in the Technology category. Rethink Robotics' Rodney Brooks won in the Leadership category in 2014.
Key aspects of Østergaard’s work at Universal Robots includes the development of 3D robot programming via an intuitive tablet interface. This interface enables users with no previous programming experience to quickly set up and operate the robots—even I was able to do it, as can be seen in this article. Østergaard also developed the robot’s force and safety control features, which ensure that if the robot collides with a person, the robot automatically stops operating and does not cause bodily harm, adhering to current safety requirements on force and torque limitations.
Though Universal Robots did not invent the world's first cobot, it is considered to be the company that developed the first "commercially viable" cobot. The company sold its first UR5 in December of 2008. Other cobots in development at that time were still predominantly research projects.
“His (Østergaard’s ) work in the field of collaborative robot applications has allowed robots to enter previously unthinkable sectors in just about every industry,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association). “Esben Østergaard’s emphasis on robots that work side-by-side with people and are easy to use has created enormous interest among many small and medium sized companies who never even considered robots before. In a world that is increasingly characterized by people and robots working together, Esben’s pioneering technology advances play a pivotal role.”
Since Universal Robots’ launch in 2008, the company has come to be seen by many as the market leader in collaborative robots. According to Universal Robots, it currently has 58 percent share of all cobots sold worldwide, and grew by 72 percent in 2017.
The award given to Østergaard is named for Joseph F. Engelberger, known as the “father of robotics.” Engelberger was founder and president of Unimation Inc., the world's first industrial robot manufacturer. Since 1977, the Engelberger Robotics awards have been presented by the RIA to individuals for excellence in technology development, application, education and leadership in the robotics industry and recognize outstanding individuals from all over the world.