This years’ all-digital CES 2021 even was different, to say the least. It wasn’t just the change-up in format either. Anyone who was watching probably couldn’t help but notice that the direction of the tech this year has definitely been influenced by the past events of 2020. Most companies have shifted their goals since the pandemic took over our lives.

The focus of exhibits was aimed towards living, working, and keeping ourselves safe throughout the trials we are now facing at the hands of the coronavirus. Due to the events that took place last year, robotics was one of the categories, pushed in a new direction.

The virtual trade show was chock-a-block with a variety of robotic devices and products.  Some showcasing incremental improvements on previous models and others introducing entirely new concepts. Some of the innovations on offer highlighted companies branching into completely new territories, applying their developed products in completely new directions to help tackle some of the changes that Covid 19 has brought about. With most of us restricted as to what we can and cannot do efforts from robotics manufacturers have evolved to help meet unprecedented requirements and compliment our new normal in a modern way.

This consumer electronics industry has had to consider the change in needs of the modern consumer and come up with solutions to ease the chaos brought about by impromptu lockdowns. Some of the hot items at the show were Razer’s Project Hazel smart N95 mask, an LG refrigerator with a UV light emitter to disinfect, and a touchless toilet from Kohler. Now that people can’t leave their households like before, we’re looking for ways to do things to keep people safe while completing essential tasks. 

For anyone who was already in the robotics industry, this has been more of a case of adaption rather than complete innovation. Katie Collins has given a good round-up of some of the evidence seen at this years’ all-digital showcase in her article for cnet. Here are some of the highlights for you.

Repurposed Robots

Pollen Robotics was one of the companies that went down the adaptation route. The French team behind Reachy, an interactive humanoid robot has given the old dog a new trick. When it was first demonstrated last year at CES we saw its object interaction skills and the company also highlighted how it can interact with people. This year, however, with the social distancing that arose out of the pandemic Pollen has given it a remote upgrade that has enormous potential.

Reachy is now compatible with a specially developed humanoid VR teleoperation app. Basically, anyone can control Reachy remotely, by wearing a VR headset and using hand controllers, allowing the robot to complete tasks from anywhere in the world.

Although the idea of telepresence robots isn’t new, the need for a proxy just got kicked up a whole notch. Reachy is an open-source project so the potential for what it might be capable of managing in the future is pretty limitless. This makes it an exciting project to keep an eye on.

Another familiar faced CES 2021 exhibitor who made a return appearance was the UK-based Shadow Robots team. They have had a presence at CES 2021 for several consecutive years. Their wheelhouse has been in building robotic hands with the intention of mimicking human maneuvers in real-time. No easy feat, but highly beneficial for performing tasks in a safer logistical way, whilst eliminating human error altogether.

They came bearing good news that they have been given the go-ahead for further research courtesy of funding secured from Innovate UK. This gives them the backing that they need to find out whether their Tactile Telerobot can be of any help within the manufacturing of Pfizer’s latest COVID vaccinations. The work itself would require high levels of dexterity and accuracy but they are exploring all the options to see if their system could possibly meet the sterile environment needs better than they are currently managing. Potentially a Tactile Telerobot such as theirs could produce vaccines in a sterile environment more quickly than a human and work out much cheaper in the long run as well.

It’ll be doing tasks usually completed by humans, who have to work by putting their hands into a sterile box with gloves attached, called an isolator, said Shadow Managing Director Rich Walker. With such a finicky task there is a huge margin for human error.  A telepresence robot would be safer and more efficient, giving human workers more control and ultimately manufacturing to a stricter deadline. 

Walker is one of the current main distributors for Shadow’s robots and they say “It’s just really nice to do something where you can actually genuinely see we have the opportunity to help people who are solving real problems, real challenges, who have a difficult working environment”.

Seeing important real-world applications for this cutting-edge tech is beyond impressive. We are truly living in an age where the reality of robotics is becoming a necessity rather than a whim.

Fresh Innovation

In addition to those being repurposed we also saw a rise in droids designed for environmental decontamination. A pretty new category of robot undoubtedly brought about by the threat of Covid19 that still looms over us all. 

This year, the robots that use ultraviolet light (UV-C) to disinfect high-touch, high-traffic areas were unveiled by both LG and Ubtech, two companies that always bring new robots to CES. These robots could be successfully used in hotel rooms, classrooms, restaurants, and other such high-touch areas.

Holding a scanner at a specific distance is a task that requires accuracy. Walker also sits on Innovate UK’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Advisory Board. They say that keeping things clean and safe is ideal work for a robot. It would be almost impossible for a human to do and ensure an entire room had been cleaned perfectly, he said. “Whereas having a robot do it, it’s absolutely consistent every time, totally faultless.”

LG’s CLOi robot has sensors that mean that it can navigate its environment changing its course around objects such as chairs and tables irradiating all touchable surfaces. It is also remarkably fast, completing its cleanse in around 15 to 30 minutes maximum. Of course, this is dependant on the room size itself.

LG's CLOi robot
LG’s CLOi robot designed to be able to irradiate an entire room’s touchable surfaces. Image credit: cnet.com

The robot is aimed to bring “peace of mind,” so that people won’t be exposed to harmful bacteria and germs, said Michael Kosla, vice president of LG Business Solutions USA. “A higher level of disinfection is going to become the new customer expectation in the new contactless economy where we now all live, work, learn and play,” he also added.

Ben Wood, a senior analyst at CCS Insight was not surprised at all by this year’s much larger presence of disinfecting robots at CES2021.New roles for robots outside of factory manufacturing lines have been long overdue. With the pandemic, it was forecast last October, that the need to combat the spread of infection would likely fast-track the widening of robot applications. And, here we are. 

In a recent statement, he said “We predicted that robots would be deployed to undertake tasks such as health monitoring and cleaning in hospitals, housekeeping in hotels and foodservice and payment in restaurants. This has certainly come to fruition and LG’s UV-C robot, which was showcased at CES, is a good example of this.”

Newfound Robots Appeal

Many of us have been quick to dismiss social robots in the past, filing them away as more of a gimmick. However, this year’s CES 2021 presentation does leave one with the feeling that they might just have a place in our ever increasingly isolated world. 

Loneliness is an issue that was once reserved for the disabled, the elderly, or those with dementia but the pandemic has left us all feeling a little more disconnected than usual. As Katie suggested in her article; robots that respond to you might just be the answer. Moflin, a fluffy guinea pig made by Vanguard Industries in Japan, may have more appeal than it ever previously would on the market. It responds to touch and to the sound of your voice. It could provide the company that you have been missing out on whilst you work from home.

Being stuck indoors for longer has no doubt led to more housework all around as well. So Samsung’s Bot Handy could prove very useful too. It has a range of uses, be it lending you a helping hand with loading and unloading your dishwasher or pouring you a glass of wine after a stressful at-home shift. Little things like this are probably a lot higher on some people’s lists these days without bars in operation and the dishes racking up as fewer of us venture out to eat. 

There is such an impressive range of solutions cropping up on the market for our newly shifted at home needs. The Bot Care for example is a mobile personal assistant that encourages breaks in work if you set reminders and it can dictate your schedule whilst you work without the need for screen or tab switching and even provide a bit of welcome chit chat to break the silence. Convenient devices such as this are becoming ever popular as we all need to manage our time more efficiently.

Anyone who has had to work from home with their children present will see the benefit in Moxie, a desktop robot, designed by educators and child-development specialists to help keep youngsters entertained while you are preoccupied. The benefits of which speak for themself.

If this year’s CES 2021 has taught us anything it might be that the times are indeed changing and robots could ease the transitions we are dealing with. Once they were a pricy expense and deemed for those with more of a lux lifestyle than most. But now perspectives and attitudes are shifting. We have to adapt and they can clearly make life a little easier for everyone concerned. So ultimately, no matter your stance, pandemic or not, we will no doubt be seeing more robots in our day to day lives from here on out.