The robots are coming – but not in the way you might expect

When hearing about robots, do you think of the HBO-series Westworld or the movie about Blade Runner? Or do you perhaps think of big robot arms that perform one-sided industrial work without getting a tennis elbow?

Android robots are no longer limited to the sci-fi universe. However, the robots of the future are much different – and more abstract – than what we might assume and understand about robots.

Big Data, Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 are only a fraction of the buzzwords flying around, when the conversation concerns robots. Safety and ethical guidelines for robots and data are also merrily debated.

What are the limits of artificial intelligence? Will it come down to humans leaning back while robots are doing all the work? Are we perhaps on the way towards a Matrix-like society controlled by robots? Or is there in fact a middle way, where people and self-taught robots complement each other?
Regardless of whether we are excited or skeptical towards robots, it is a fact that they have come to stay, and Denmark is one of the countries to take the lead. We are number six on the list of countries with most robots per person employed in manufacturing. This is especially due to the so-called “robot-cluster” based in Odense.

The robot adventure in Odense

In Odense there are more than a 100 companies who, with help from PhD students from The University of Southern Denmark, develop advanced technology for robots. The cooperation between students and the industry provides the companies with access to the most recent knowledge within the area, while the students get the opportunity to try out their theories in practice.

For several years, Plougmann Vingtoft’s two patent attorneys, Brian Andersen and Michael Friis Sørensen, have helped both companies and PhD students attached to the robot cluster with patenting their inventions.

Our two patent attorneys, Michael Friis Sørensen and Brian Andersen photographed with Norma the robot, who is ‘employed’ at the Dokk1 library in Aarhus, where ‘she’ helps people with information about materials and books at the library. Photo: Bo Fristed

Besides being experienced patent attorneys, Brian and Michael both have a professional background in technology, which they draw upon in their daily work with patenting robot technology. They are both educated civil engineers from Aalborg University – Brian with MSc and PhD within optics and piezo-technique, and Michael with MSc in electronics, software and sound. They are both very enthusiastic about all the innovators and the area of robot technology.

Brian: “It is a new and developing area, which we think is challenging both in terms of technology and patenting”.

Michael: “One of the things that make it exciting is that this is Industry 4.0 where robots are understood in a more abstract sense. It is not just an arm that works monotonous; we actually see a combination of several different technologies”.

Future robot technology – a network of autonomous robots

The ‘Industry 4.0’ expression describes a tendency, where production is automatized. Machines and robots are connected via digital networks, which allows them to coordinate their work processes by themselves.

Imagine a farm where the tractor and the combine harvester can communicate with each other and organize their work in the field without a need for the farmer to intervene. Further, the machines can be connected to a big data system, which collects data from several farmers, and thereby be able to calculate when the circumstances for harvesting are ideal.

In other words, the future robot technology should be understood in a wider sense. Firstly, there are physical robots with certain industrial or household employments. These are mobile, self-taught and able to go function amongst people. Secondly, there is robot technology understood as abstract networks where machines can communicate and cooperate with each other.

Michael: “If we want robots to be autonomous, they should be able to function amongst people and carry out tasks, such as cleaning floors, while there are customers present at the store. They should be able to see and hear where people are and predict where they are heading next”.

Therefore, robot technology is a complicated discipline, which consists of a line of technologies working together in every way.

Patenting robot technology requires a good overview

The mix of different technologies requires that the patent attorneys get a good overview and a solid understanding of technology in general. Brian Andersen and Michael Friis Sørensen have advised companies and scientists in and around the robot cluster for many years, and their work has provided great insights into a wide spectrum of subject areas.

Michael: “Day by day we get a deeper knowledge about the areas in which we work. If you know the solution from a similar subject area, it is possible at an early stage to tell the client, that there is no future in his/her presented idea, since it is already known from another subject area”.

Brian: “You will come to see, that at Plougmann Vingtoft it can be attorneys like Michael and me, who are in charge, and sometimes it can be another attorney who is more experienced within mechanics. It all depends on what is required”.

Together with the University of Southern Denmark, Michael and Brian have mapped out the patenting of the different areas of robot technology. Where do we have the most activity? Which areas are interesting to enter? Which areas are overly patented?

Hereby, the PhD students can see which companies work within their area and eventually they can enter a cooperation with them. Further, they can see which inventions are no longer relevant to develop further. However, it does go wrong from time to time when companies and students turn to the patent attorneys for advice too late.

Michael: “If people have made the idea public before they turn to us, it is too late to patent it. In other cases some have started developing on their idea, and later they realize that others have patented the idea already – in this case they will be stopped”.

Easier to receive patent guidance in Odense

1 February 2017 it became easier for scientists and companies in Odense to receive advice on patenting robot technology. This is because Plougmann Vingtoft has established an office space in Odense. Our robot- and drone experts are looking forward to being local sparring partners for the many active people in and around the robot cluster.

Read also: Plougmann Vingtoft is moving closer to clients in the southern part of Denmark

Read also: Robotics