In our RoboPass visit to Italy we take you on a tour of the Italian robotics ecosystem, we look below the surface of the marine robotics sector, piloted by the Italian members of the marine roboticsTopic Group. Not least, we offer you two member profiles, one of them of an industrial giant with roots that span at least to the 1940s, the other born in the 21st century. 

The Italian robotics ecosystem

by Fiorella Operto, Daniela Passariello and Bruno Siciliano 

Italy has an important tradition of machine engineering. From Leonardo da Vinci to the robot Sigma ― one of the first industrial robots in the world, developed by Olivetti in 1973 for assembly ― the role of a large automotive company, FIAT, its robotics subsidiary COMAU, and a landscape of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the choice was to build and integrate robots for the customer, or the end user, so as to meet the different needs of production and the market. 

At the same time, a number of university and research centres have carried out world-renowned research in the fields of industrial, logistics, humanoid and assistance robotics.

Robots’ production and integration

Instrumental mechanics is by far the leading item in Italian exports, accounting for about 20% of the GP total.

According to the figures about installations of robots in 2019, net of the automotive sector, we discover that the distance between Germany and Italy is really minimal (10,247 against 9,831) and that the gap between us and the countries that follow us has widened further: our General Industry market is 3 times that of France, 5 times that of Spain, 6 times that of Poland and almost 8 times that of the UK. In this sense, the future can only look rosy as it is not a specific niche subject to the uncertainties of the pandemic, but it is a consolidated primacy of Italy in the most varied application sectors: from furniture to food, from pharmaceuticals to heavy mechanics and so on1.

We are witnessing an impetuous growth of the so-called ‘system integrators’ ― often SMEs in mechatronics ― each highly specialized in a wide range of vertical sectors, which are rapidly gaining share and reputation on foreign markets. These companies buy the robot in Italy and integrate it into their cells, systems or industrial automation lines, which they then install all over the world.

Service robotics

Service robots have achieved high numbers in recent years: Robots for medical, logistics and field services are the most significant addenda. In many medical wards, surgical robots are used on a daily basis, and surveys have shown a high level of acceptance among patients. During the CoViD-19 lockdown, remote communication and assistance robots were utilized in hospitals, nursing homes and isolation wards and helped to support healthcare staff operations, and patients to maintain a link with families.

The Ministry of Education has introduced educational robots in the National Digital School Plan (PNSD) and today many Italian schools are using various robotic kits to support STEM.

Robotics research

The national robotics community (academies, research centres, companies, startups), united in the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Machines (I-RIM, represents Italian industrial and research excellence well. In the past, a national investment plan in the sector (targeted CNR Robotics Project Robotics CNR 1989‒-1994) invested 56.4 billion lire (editor’s note: broadly €23.3 million after adjusting for currency conversion and inflation) and enabled financing of over 200 projects in FP7 and H2020 (with a surplus share of 3.5%) and 15 ERC grants for a total of 120 billion Euros, in addition to a difficult-to-quantify but very strong impact on industry. It is expected that this leverage factor will be even greater with strategic investments made in the current phase, characterized by a profound productive reconversion based on new market needs, security and new technologies. In the current National Recovery and Resilience Plan it is expected that the robotics intervention area will have a high impact on major national research and innovation areas, including digitalisation, critical infrastructures and clean energy.

The more Italians know them, the more they like them

The overlap between a certain image of robots ― as in myth, literature and filmography ― and reality has created mistrust and resistance with respect to the entry of robots into our society, even in a sector such as the industrial one. If we think that automata were designed to be confined to well-protected spaces to prevent any contact with humans, their evolution into a collaborative robot (cobot) has aroused concern and skepticism. Cobots took some time to be accepted by their users who only then understood and verified the function for which they were designed: working closely with people, sharing spaces with them, to help them and not to replace them.

In 2019 the data from the Second Report of AIDP (Italian Association of Personnel Management) and LABLAW (one of the most important Italian labor law studies) by DOXA on Robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and work in Italy are very significant. For 94%, the use of robots and AI led to discoveries and results that were once unthinkable, for 89% it is necessary to carry out activities that are too tiring and dangerous for humans but will never be able to replace them. completely. It also contributes to improving well-being and quality of life (87%). For 92%, however, to seize all the opportunities it is necessary to develop new laws and regulations capable of regulating the matter. Conversely, however, 70% think they will cause the loss of many jobs and 50% are concerned with the risk of dominance of machines over humans. Although a positive sentiment clearly prevails towards the potential of new technologies, fears and concerns remain in non-negligible percentages.

To the question: “What is your opinion of robots and AI?”, 87% responded positively. For 53%, the most useful area is in logistics and transport, for 51% in manufacturing and industry, for 50% in medicine and health services, for 48% in the military sector, in security and in the automotive sector. It should be noted that for 40% of the most affected application sectors there is domestic work and for 32% assistance to the elderly and disabled.

In this perspective, an honest dissemination of robotics and an open discussion on the problems of roboethics ― the applied ethics born in the Italian robotics milieu ― seem crucial in order to eliminate prejudices and activate the enrichment of an important citizen science.

Only then we will be able to pursue the new frontier of robotics: robots are with us, within us and among us!