Africa's Robotics Renaissance

Africa's Robotics Renaissance

Just like any other part of the world, the African continent is also brimming with innovation in robotics and robots are being used across various industries especially in healthcare. However, challenges such as high costs and the risks of job losses due to automation remain.

Surya Kannoth

When Leonardo da Vinci drew plans in his sketchbook for a robotics knight that scholars believed could sit, stand, raise its visor, and move its arms, little did one know that one day such robots would actually be working in factories around the world as seen today. It wasn’t until 1961 that the first industrial robot was sold to perform useful work, transferring parts from one point to another in a General Motors car factory. Like that first robot, majority of industrial robotic arms installed between the 1960s and today are being used across various industries to support logistics and distribution. The transition from robots delivering small packages in cities to driverless trucks transporting bulk loads over long distances, advances in robotic delivery has lead to significant changes in the freight haulage industry and transport in general. Just like any other part of the world, Africa is also brimming with innovation in robotics and robots are being used in various industries especially in healthcare. “Africans understand frugal design and how to build electricity-resilient systems far better than Americans. I’m convinced that robotics will play an increasing role in Africa and that Africans will be play increasing role in robotics,” said Ken Goldberg, co-founder of the African Robotics Network (AFRON) as mentioned in a blog post on SwaliAfrica. In 2014, a robot made by a US based company Vecna Technologies made history in the Liberian capital, Monrovia to help in the fight against the deadly Ebola virus. The robot, known as TRU-D SmartUVC, use a dose of UV light that is lethal to disease-causing microbes, making a room 99.9 percent germ free. Hospital staff at the ELWA missionary hospital switched on TRU-D, the first automated room decontamination machine to ever be used in Africa. TRU-D is not the only robotics development that is being used in the continent. And, unlike TRU-D, some have been designed and built in Africa itself. The authorities in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, recently installed two eight-foot tall robots downtown to help direct traffic and prevent road accidents. The solar-powered traffic attendants not only have traffic lights on their chests - they can also move their arms to either let pedestrians through or stop cars from speeding past.These robots have a built-in electronic detection capability which enables them to pick up on pedestrians waiting to cross. Meanwhile, South African engineers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria are currently testing robots that will be able to assess the safety of mines after they have been blasted. Currently, humans are used to check whether the hanging walls of mines in South Africa are safe. This is a dangerous process that can lead to serious or fatal accidents. According to reports, these robots could also save mining firms millions of and as work stoppages due to accidents after blasting should be significantly reduced. The prototype robot was completed in March 2014 and will have to be industrialised before being rolled out in South Africa’s mines. According to a report by Mordor Intelligence, the Middle East and Africa warehouse robotics market is projected to reach US$ 1.02 billion by the end of 2020 growing at a CAGR of 10.33 per cent during the forecast period 2015-2020.Companies like Clearpath, Fetch, and Locus Robotics (outside of Africa) have been doing some amazing work in order fulfillment and other warehouse tasks by developing mobile platforms that can autonomously and intelligently ferry items between locations. “Robotics are increasingly being leveraged within warehouses to increase productivity and deliver efficiency improvements. Innovators, such as those that we have identified in the report, are developing intelligent and collaborative robots to help manage the increased flow of goods through modern warehouses and support picking and packing strategies more aligned to the needs of today’s omni-channel commerce,” said John Santagate, research manager, Supply Chain Execution at IDC Manufacturing Insights when International Data Corporation published its 2016 IDC Innovators report to recognize pioneering players in the warehouse robotics market. However, according to a study, which draws from World Bank research, authored by US-based bank Citi and the Oxford Martin School, a research and policy arm of the University of Oxford, 85 percent of jobs in Ethiopia are at risk of being automated from a pure technological viewpoint, the highest proportion of any country globally. This is primarily because majority of jobs in most of Africa are either low-skilled or in industries highly susceptible to computers and robots, including the continent’s mainstay agriculture. African organisations face the challenges as those elsewhere in terms of the high cost of developing prototypes or early models of robots. Dr Riaan Stopforth of Mechatronics and Robotics Research Group MR2G was quoted in a blogpost on SwaliAfrica, “There is a definite drive for low cost systems. On a continent where money for expensive robots is also limited, some think that there is real potential for Africa to build a reputation for coming up with more affordable, accessible models.”

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