Saturday, December 26, 2009

Robotics 2009 - A Review

Singularity Hub, a website reporting advances in nanotechnology, genetics, biology, AI, aging and robotics, presented their 2009 Best Robots pictorial, a graphic review of some of the most interesting robots in the news in 2009.  A few of the entries were frivolous or  prototypes with no prospect of near-term commercialization, and there were some major omissions, but overall it gives a favorable impression of the progress made during 2009 - and prospects for the future - in robotics. It made me think that it might be time to review my own progress through 2009.

In June, 2008, I began to research the robotics industry - and the future of robotics - with an eye toward selectively investing in publicly-traded or privately held robotics businesses. I set up The Robot Report as an adjunct of my research - to share the data I've collected and to provide a visual method to track the business of robotics.  I've also been compiling a database of robotic companies and facilities worldwide and developed an industry chart (RoboStox™) of publicly-traded service and industrial robotic companies from which to compare their change to that of the NASDAQ and the DJIA indexes. RoboStox™is updated and recapped monthly on The Robot Report.

My research was necessary because my stock brokers didn't have a list of companies involved in robotics. They had a few stock tips but nothing comprehensive about the industry. Nor was there a fund or index for the industry.  Not even a knowledgeable specialist or quant. I realized that I had to do the legwork myself. It's been an intensive project that has taken me to Korea, Germany, Japan, and all over the Internet. My eyesight has suffered but not my mind. I love what I'm doing and discovering.

September 2008 was right about the time that the economic crisis really hit. Stocks took their second and biggest dive. People were on the edge of panic. Things hidden behind years of obfuscation became painfully visible in the media.

Robotic stocks tumbled that September. Fell like bricks. But I was still optimistic. I thought that by the time I really grasped the business of robotics, I'd be able to select the good from the chaff, and ride the wave back up, should it ever happen.

Thus far I've identified more than 600 companies (worldwide) that produce robotic products, 150 of which are publicly traded. Of the 600, many are conglomerates or companies where robotics aren't their primary business - ABB is an example. Less than 1/3 of ABB revenue is from robotics, yet ABB is one of the major robotics providers in the world.  Many of the companies aren't listed on American exchanges. My database has another 650 companies, some of which are public, that are ancillary to the industry providing everything from engineering, integration, software, vision systems and other necessary components to purely educational and research facilities. I have another 200 UAV providers on hold because many are unlikely to become commercially viable due to restrictions in airspace and the probability that countless years will pass before those limitations are lifted.

Observations from 2009:
  • Strategic funding toward a robotics industry via a roadmap is non-existant in the U.S. but not in Korea, Japan and the EU. Their "roadmaps" have been designed, plotted out, funded, the public-private groups selected, and the tasks and research are underway.  Korea's $1.25 billion Frontier Program has an overall goal of a robot in every household and for Korea to become the primary worldwide provider of industrial robots by 2018. Japan's $100 million transition to service robotics is reflected in a variety of prototype elder and home care robots and smaller multi-functional assistance robots. The EU has funded (at least $600 million) for a variety of public-private consortiums in the area of cognitive systems, human-robot and robot-robot interaction.
  • In America, we are many years behind.  Our "roadmap" was presented to a congressional caucus in February but has yet to be approved or funded.  If it does get approved and then funded, it is unlikely to get into the budget until FY 2013 or 2014.  As an American, I find this to be quite disturbing.
  • Pragmatic funding for robotics does happen in the U.S. particularly for defense through DARPA, space, and from a select few individual entrepreneurs.
  • Although there is and will be stimulus for high tech from the 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill, there is NONE for robotics; rather, there's money for healthcare digitization, enhancing the national broadband system and for energy efficiency (mostly in the form of grants and tax credits) and the ARPA-E grants for the development of enhanced battery technologies, carbon capture and other non-robotic research.
  • Industrial robot producers have been diversifying and consolidating into the service sector and improving their products by making them lighter, more capable, less requiring of a safety cage, and easily trained.
  • Like other companies suffering the economic crisis, orders have been down and employee cuts were necessary.  But that trend appears to be reversing in the services sector.
  • Proof of this last point came from job offer information from LinkedIn and the Robotics-Worldwide mailing list - sources for monitoring such offerings.  One can see particular progress in the areas of bionics, motion vision, human-robot and robot-robot communication, motion flexibility, and artificial intelligence.  
  • Worldwide robotics stocks - in anticipation of a return to economic normalcy - have recouped much of their losses from lows reached early this year.  Nevertheless, almost all are still lower than they were in 2008.
  • Other researchers are getting on the robotics bandwagon in addition to The Robot Report.  Three new players offered pay-for material about the industry in 2009. The Robot Report, of course, is free.
Thus 2009 was a year of retrenchment for industrial robotic suppliers - product improvements and movement toward new products in the service robotics sector.  Industrial orders may have been down, but companies making the move to the service sector are hiring and marketing.  One exception to this has been in defense, space and surveillance where orders and sales are up.  Although news reports make it appear to be an American thing, it really is a worldwide phenomenon.  Countries from Israel to South Africa, from Brazil to China, are all developing security and defense bots of one type or another.

For me, 2009 was a year of research, database development and learning.  As the year progressed I began to focus on areas of particular appeal: rehabilitative robotics, agricultural robots, and medium-priced robotic toys to name a few.  People and companies began to discuss their financial needs with me and my collection of NDA's is growing.  Hopefully 2010 will be the year where everything robotic gels and we all have an exiting and prosperous robotics New Year.  One can only hope!

PS: 'Christmas Fun with Electronic Robots' was the cover story on the now-defunct Popular Electronics magazine back in December, 1958 - 51 years ago.  The issue sold for 35 cents!  I scanned and Photoshopped the cover into the graphic shown above.