Measuring the Growth of the Robotics Industry
October 24, 2013, Robo Business, Santa Clara, CA—Dan Kara from Myria RAS looked at the various components that comprise a robotics system to develop a sense of the industry growth. The high fragmentation and emerging technologies adversely affects the reporting functions.
Now, robotics seem to have a wide range of capabilities from specialized and dedicated fixed platforms, to mobile workers that are now able to exist in the same environment was humans. Vision systems, tactile sensors, and links to mapping functions enables autonomous, natural integration with IT systems and manufacturing operations. One growing sector is in warehouse applications.
The new warehouse workers can load and unload trucks and shelves on a 24-7 basis and can facilitate the lights-out operations of many functions. these robots have automatic vehicle guidance and mapping capabilities that allow the robots to fill a pick list faster than a person, because the shortest route to fill a pick list can be predetermined with the assignment.
Co-worker robots are able to adapt to supplement the functions of the dedicated workstation robot through fully articulated appendages and a wide range of sensors. These co-workers can also work directly with humans without a safety cage or keep out zones due to the vision systems and greater built-in intelligence. The mobile robots also cost much less than the big systems robots.
The increased mobility give the mobile manipulators capabilities and flexibility along with much simpler programming and training. Some of the mobile robots can be trained by example, with the operator/co-worker manually moving the manipulators for a task. This training reduces the installation time and cost
In the future, these mobile manipulators will be able to grasp and handle even fragile objects independent of their starting orientation. The grasping mechanisms will be more flexible and easier to use. The mobile capabilities require greater autonomy in the robot and better integration of the LIDAR and vision sub-systems to sense any intrusions into the work space.
The flexible robots will move into the small and medium markets to facilitate small lot and flexible manufacturing. The big, dedicated robotic workstations will continue to be the purview of the bigger manufacturers who can plan on high volumes and continuous operations. Another area where the flexible and autonomous robots can contribute is in areas like food handling.
The ability of service robots to perform repetitive and defied tasks implies a wealth of applications areas that are ripe for entry. The current market for robots is about $3.4B, mostly in defense. Some spin-out applications include unmanned aeronautical vehicles for precision agriculture. Thre are many other areas that can use some of the combinations of communications, perception, mobility, cooperation, and manipulators. Even thought the defense budgets are being cut, the proven value of robots to remove people from harm's way means that the defense industries will continue to develop new capabilities for sensor and manipulator platforms.
Field evaluations for mobile worker-bots are now starting for materials handling, farming, safety inspections, and exploration. A few farmers are looking into autonomous robots for herding their animals. Some mining companies have sets of fully autonomous digging and transfer systems that move the extracted materials from the mine directly to the autonomous dump trucks for transfer to rail cars.
The healthcare industry is looking to robots to reduce costs and medical delivery errors. Some of the new capabilities include hospital co-workers for deliveries and machines for rehabilitation. A smart prosthesis improves functionality while turning you into a cyborg. There are already a number of surgical robots to assist surgeons with delicate procedures and mobile tele-presence is going to put medical expertise into remote locations that don't have any doctors.
The medical field offers many functions where humans can be supplemented with robots. Laboratory work, pharmacology, and surgery are the largest areas with many other functions as niche operations.
After these initial markets open up, robots will become consumer items, and will become a very big market. Early entries into the consumer space include the autonomous vacuum cleaners and floor mops, but games and interactive toys will be much bigger. Personal robots will assist with home and lawn care, become smart toys, provide elder care and services to allow the elderly to age in place. The big challenges are in the business models and market identification. The main question is what to do with robots versus what is included in the smart home.
Autonomous cars face legal and social issues, but the technology is already proven. Taking a long-term view, by '32 half of all new cars will be autonomous. This will be an incremental change with more features added to cars over time. We already have self-parking and adaptive cruise control in many high-end cars and these functions are moving into the mass market cars.
The technology drivers for greater adoption include the need for a common, simple robot operating system. Moore's law will provide the compute performance and memory density, the cloud can offer many back-end functions, and the decreasing cost of sensors means that the costs for more functionality in robots will continue to drop. Infrastructure will include robots as a critical part of the Internet of Things, because many of those sensors will be inaccessible to people.
Robots represent a big market and many potential users. The global market for robots stands at $25B, while the eventual market might be as large as $8T. Nevertheless, robots will remain a technology looking for a place in most markets until the business models are refined. Some markets have a great need, e.g. prosthetics, but the R & D costs and installation costs make entry cost prohibitive.