Robotics industry expands its areas of application

The incorporation of robotics in Chile is taking place across diverse productive sectors, from mining, to agro-industry and medicine. Its boom is also driving local companies to develop their own initiatives, some of which are already gaining traction on the global stage. 

By Alejandra Melo

Reference to robotics often evokes collective thoughts of science fiction and, undoubtedly, the cyborgs from the Terminator movie franchise or the friendlier classics of C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars. Although characters such as these remain a distant reality, it is no futuristic utopia to see robotic technologies in the present with the ability to carry out the work of humans.

Globally, robotics, which is the science of the design and construction of machines capable of undertaking tasks performed by people, or activities that require the use of intelligence, is already a reality at the industry level.

According to the 2015 World Robot Statistics survey, published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), to 2018 almost 1.3 million industrial robots will be working in factories around the world. While South Korea, Japan and Germany remain the current global leaders in automated industrial robotics, Chile is making giant strides forward in this field.

Rodrigo Quevedo, founder and director of Robotics Lab SCL, the first applied robotics center in the country, says that this area is globally relevant, particularly so for Chile given the greater technology gap that exists in relation to developed nations. Indeed, he argues that “robotics is set to cover the development and implementation of new technologies” across the industrial board.

Quevedo adds that at the local level, robotic technology is already penetrating areas such as healthcare, agriculture, the environment, education and entertainment, among others. The key, he contends, is that around the world robotics is beginning to interact with other technologies including big data, the internet of things and cloud computing. This “provides us with an opportunity to become part of the Industrial Revolution 4.0” he says, in reference to the concept of a new way of organizing the means of production. In this revolution, Quevedo contends that robotics will contribute to the establishment of smart factories that are expected to facilitate industrial processes and resource management by making all tasks more efficient and flexible.

The potential behind the robotics sector is now recognized throughout the worlds of industry and academia, as well as, significantly, across the Chilean State. For example, one incentive has already been provided in Chile in the field of engineering with the creation of specialized centers located within distinct research houses, including those in the Universidad de Chile and Universidad Federico Santa María.

Robotics in Chilean industry 

One of the bodies to have encouraged the use of robotics in the local market has been the Ministry of Economy, via Corfo and the strategic ‘Transform’ programs, which include two initiatives that incorporate advanced robotics as a key field of development in the manufacturing and mining sectors.

The first of these initiatives relates to the Industrial Revolution 4.0. One of its objectives is to leverage the international technological advancements made to date that are required for the development of advanced manufacturing. The aim is replicate these required aspects, which include technological development partnerships, intensive technology transfer from leading countries, foreign investment, and low-cost technological production.

According to Corfo, the overarching goal is for the robotic systems within a given company to work in a coordinated manner. As such, this is an area in which the State is seeking to become a pioneer, and certain sectors have already benefitted from this objective. For example, in the case of mining, progress has been made in the adoption and creation of standards related to mining interoperability, as part of wider efforts to foster the development of a robotics industry for this particular sector.

In this context, Corfo has awarded financing to different companies and institutions for the implementation of related projects. This includes support for the formation of consortiums, such as the one launched in 2008 by High Services and Kuka Robotech, in addition to prototyping and developing robots, and establishing robotics labs. Notable in this regard is the Robotics Laboratory of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Universidad de Santiago, which is working on the development of robot controllers.

In the mining sector, on the other hand, development in robotics has been driven by the Ministry of Mining. Since 2014, the Ministry has proposed positioning the sector as a technological and laboratory-centered development area capable of creating solutions geared towards making mining processes safer and more efficient.

“The use of robotics in mining significantly increases productivity and worker safety. That is why we will continue to promote multi-actor dialogue across the sector, including with suppliers, academia and the State in order to streamline the development of products for automation”, states the Minister of Mining, Aurora Williams.

The Minister adds that while Chile is already conceived of as a leading player in mining at the government level, it has the chance to assume a similar position in terms of the provision of industrial solutions. To achieve this objective, she adds, innovation is and will continue to be the fundamental aspect.

Robotics in medicine

Another area to have firmly boosted robotics in the private sector in recent decades has been the field of medicine. For example, minimally invasive surgery, both endoscopic and laparoscopic, is beginning to be applied across all branches of surgical medicine.

In 2009, Indisa Clinic in Santiago became a pioneer in this regard by incorporating the use of the da Vinci platform, the only robotic operating system used in the world until recently. The da Vinci platform is utilized primarily for surgical procedures. In 2016, the clinic acquired a second robot, thereby becoming a center capable of handling large surgical volumes and transforming itself into only the third medical institution in Latin America with two robotic systems.

Octavio Castillo, Director of the Center of Robotic Surgery at Indisa Clinic, explains how the da Vinci surgical system incorporates distinct tools for the surgeon, including amplified 3D vision, the handling of four instruments simultaneously and reduced-size instruments. Such assets enable the surgeon to be seated at a central console from which they can control the instruments remotely (telesurgery).

The benefits of this technology for patients are numerous compared to traditional surgical procedures. For example, they include smaller incisions, reduced postoperative pain, faster ambulation times and earlier feeding, quicker discharge from hospital and a rapid reintegration into the world of work. Moreover, there is no need for transfusions, for example in complex operative procedures such as radical prostate surgery.

While the example of Indisa Clinic represents significant progress, Castillo warns that the most important challenge is now to ensure that the benefits of this technology become available to all patients. This implies the incorporation of robotic procedures across additional Chilean healthcare systems. Indeed, this is a step that certain private health providers (Isapres) are beginning to take.

Robotics ‘Made in Chile’

According to the Chilean Association of Information Technology Companies (ACTI), Chile is experiencing a technical and advanced human capital deficit of 6,000 professionals a year. However, and on the contrary, several actors believe that the country does have the sufficiently prepared human resources to confront the challenges posed by the development of a home grown, or ‘made in Chile’, robotics industry.

Public-private partnerships and State support have helped to foster a surge in the numbers of local companies dedicated to robotics. For example, there is the case of the Chilean company, Mining and Heavy Industry Robotics (MIRS), which has been designing, developing and implementing robotic applications for over a decade. Every MIRS application is adjusted to the individual requirements of each process, and the work of the company is providing solutions that are helping mining to become more productive, with lower operational costs and improved levels of safety.

MIRS has a well-established and broad base at both the national and international levels in the mining sector. This includes robots operating in some of the most prominent mines in Chile, such as Radomiro Tomic, Ventanas and Codelco’s El Salvador, as well as Minera Escondida, Sierra Gorda, Molymet, Molynor and Mantos Blancos.

One of the company’s current operative solutions is the MI Robotic Sampler, a robot that automates concentrate sampling, from trucks, railway cars or maxi bags that are transporting the material. In addition to providing more accurate sampling, this approach is a safe and cost-effective solution, according to MIRS.

The usefulness of this type of machinery is not confined solely to the mining industry, and its functionality extends into other sectors too. This is because the main characteristic of a robot mean that it can be programed to undertake any repetitive activity both efficiently and safely.

Another Chilean company to have taken important strides in industrial mining and the application of robots is Maquintel, which works on robotic solutions for the inspection of ducts and the automated inspection of tailings gutters. The successful work of Maquintel in this regard has won the company funding from the likes of Corfo, Fundación Chile and CodelcoTec.

Chilean robotics: from universities to the agriculture sector 

An additional industry that has begun to utilize such technology is the agro-industrial sector. Although this niche area is traditionally resistant to change and technological evolution, it is especially important that it begins the process of incorporating technology into its operations. Doing so will help it to reduce working times and complement the scarce amount of manual labor currently available, states Fernando Auat, researcher at the Advanced Center for Electrical and Electronic Engineering (AC3E) at Universidad Federico Santa María.

At the hub of development, implementation and the prototyping of high-impact electronic projects that is AC3E, work is being carried out on distinct initiatives related to applied robotics. Specifically, this work is for use in agriculture, particularly for fruit crops, and its objective is to increase productivity across the Chilean sector.

Today, through AC3E’s multidisciplinary teams of mathematicians and electrical, industrial and product engineers, professionals are working on incorporating robotic sensors within the agricultural process for the purpose of monitoring, characterizing and phenotyping Chilean fruit production. The information provided by this technology allows for predictions to be made regarding production, which, in turn, enables actions to be taken related to harvesting costs and expected sales, in addition to various preventive crop measures.

Auat firmly believes in the importance of adopting robotic technologies in the country, as well as of the need to recognize that Chile has the human and intellectual capital necessary to develop high-level solutions. Indeed, this approach is key to working with universities in the United States and Europe, and specifically Spain, where the robotic technologies that are ‘made in Chile’ are currently tested.

“One of the main challenges at present is to make an idiosyncratic change in the country, by convincing ourselves that in Chile it is possible to develop our own technology and that it isn’t necessary to import it, since we already have both the human and technological capital necessary to do so right here”. Auat adds that one of the major problems in The agriculture industry is that the Chilean client has a tendency to prefer foreign suppliers over local ones.

While positive steps are being taken to build a national robotics industry in Chile, including emphasis being placed on productive sectors, new companies, State support and public-private partnerships, there remains a pertinent need for the potential users of these services at the commercial level to begin to learn to believe in and trust local developers.

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