Wednesday, May 26, 2010

10 Drivers Propelling Growth in Service Robotics


Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, forecast a jobless recovery for 2010 barring any unforeseen circumstances. He defined the jobless recovery as firms replacing inventories and expanding production but with little, if any overtime, no drop in unemployment, and the Fed keeping interest rates low.

As Reich's scenario seems to be playing out, regardless of the European economic bailout plan for Greece (and perhaps other EU countries as well), robotics, particularly in the service sector, are defying those predictions. Companies are hiring, their stocks are doing better than the averages, and their orders and backlogs are increasing.

Ex-NASA Astronaut Dan Barry, lecturing at a Singularity conference, categorized robots into two types: special and general purpose. He suggested that industry will have a steady need for the former but the real breakthrough and potentially disruptive technologies will be in the area of autonomous general-purpose robots.

The International Federation of Robotics also classifies robots into two types: Industrial Robots and Service Robotics. They define service robotics as:
Robots which operate semi or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations.
Barry described the joint Robonaut project between General Motors and NASA. Robonaut2 – R2 for short – is the next generation dexterous robot which will launch later this year to become a permanent resident of the International Space Station. The 300-pound R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands and can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.
"The work done by GM and NASA engineers also will help us validate manufacturing technologies that will improve the health and safety of our GM team members at our manufacturing plants throughout the world. Partnerships between organizations such as GM and NASA help ensure space exploration, road travel and manufacturing can become even safer in the future" said Alan Taub, VP of Global Research for GM.
In the next 3-5 years Barry expects breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (which puts the brains and autonomy into the robot) to better enable human-robot interfaces (haptics, gesture and speech recognition) and human-robot interactions (training, instruction, direction, intention, etc.). Further, with reduced costs for ever-improving and more comprehensive sensors, feedback and vision systems, there will be better navigation, object avoidance and object recognition systems. AI remains as the critical cog in autonomous general purpose robots.

One can easily see why the definition of service robots is changing and expanding. The service robotics sector is already dynamic, active in a multitude of industries, emerging in many more, likely to have a serious worldwide economic impact, and encompasses all manner of processing, service, and assistance with robots.

New technology is often an offshoot of scientific whim but it is also directed toward solving real problems. Technological change that is truly disruptive stimulates economic change - think of all the changes involved with the digital revolution. There are also macro events that stimulate economic change as can be seen from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of capitalism in Russia, India and China. Once possibility is perceived and understood, and there is a sufficient marketplace to sustain a business, people begin to find ways to make it happen and back those ways with their money. This process of scientific development solving real problems, VC willingness to fund the solutions and public understanding sufficient to create a demand that can be profitably satisfied is often described as an "economic driver." Here are some of the drivers causing the services sector of the robotics industry to blossom:
  1. For defense, robotics have been found to be useful for amplifying human effectiveness. Ground robots have already saved hundreds of lives and prevented thousands of casualties. UAVs and bomb disposal robots have become a vital and growing part of military arsenals worldwide. Certainly the amount of governmental funding in this area has stimulated the overall service robotics sector and will do so for many years to come.
    • DARPA, NASA and NSF have a proven track record of spending for military/defense robots and unmanned devices for many years now with much media attention directed to their successes.
    • Currently, DARPA, NASA and NSF are focusing their research investments toward smart cameras and vision systems and very flexible robotic hands. The solutions to these two areas of focus will broadly expand robotic capabilities everywhere. Both have timetables with mid-2014 deadlines for solutions. Production in the security/defense sector will occur first and shortly thereafter will trickle down for civilian use.
  2. In healthcare, robotics are emerging on many fronts:
    • Patient demand for minimally- (or non-) invasive surgeries is growing.
    • Doctors are requesting better and more capable robotic devices to meet that need.
    • In Germany there are 457 robotic surgical devices actively being utilized with only 10% presently available commercially. These new inventions will be hitting the market soon.
    • As the healthcare industry goes digital, more use of robotic products will be enabled. Pharmacy and pill dispensing robots; replacing tedious, inappropriate and repetitive nursing functions with robots; providing courier robots and tugs; improved lab robots, etc.
    • Telepresence robots are getting exposure and in trials for remote consulting and also applications in eldercare.
    • Many likely-to-happen healthcare robotic innovations were suggested at a recent Stanford medical robotics conference - the most immediate of which was the changing role of surgeons as they become augmented with robotics and other medical devices:
      • More devices that perform their functions autonomously.
      • Automated scrub and circulating nurses, and tele-consulting in the operating room.
      • Automation in tissue suturing, bonding and anesthesiology.
  3. There is consumer demand from gamers to buy gloves, vests and vision products to supplement their gaming experience. All sorts of AI and haptic-enhanced robotic products are involved - from sex robots and smart sex toys, to game-playing quadcopters, to iPhone-controlled robots.
  4. Consumer knowledge of iPhone, iTouch, iPad and other smart products and appliances including embedded robotic products like adaptive cruise control, combined with some disposable income, is showing up in demand for these and new products from non-traditional robot vendors, eg:
    • Parrot, a manufacturer of audio/stereo components for cars, is bringing to market the hottest item at CES earlier this year: an iPhone-controlled, indoor-flying, game-playing quadcopter.
    • Many new vacuum robots that have better navigation and vacuum more thoroughly are beginning to give iRobot some competition.
    • GM, Volvo and other car manufacturers are expanding their adaptive cruise control systems to cover lane changes, sleep awareness, and total stop for human objects on a collision course. A must-read update on progress and plans on the path toward cars that drive themselves in this decade appeared yesterday in The Washington Post.
  5. Recent news of the BP oil spill and the use of underwater robots, add to a learning curve about robotic and unmanned air, sea and land vehicle capabilities. With this awareness comes more interest in robotic products that are truly useful and productive versus fun and unusual but showing no clear commercial justification.
  6. UAVs returning from Iraq are being converted to science and other uses and are showing UAVs in other roles than drones surveilling and bombing. Now they're being used for scientific purposes, enhancing agricultural tasks and providing border and civilian authorities with serious surveillance capabilities.  The only hangups are collision avoidance systems and FAA-type approvals.
  7. Since I began tracking news and web coverage of AI and robotic research two years ago, the number of hits mentioned in Google news has increased 10-fold.
  8. Embedded into many automation systems are robotic arms from KUKA, Fanuc, ABB, Schunk, Peak Robotics and other industrial and lab robot providers. These companies have to diversify to stay afloat which is why they are bringing their wide range of newer, safer, easily trainable products and capabilities to untapped markets such as food processing, agriculture, healthcare and small and medium-sized manufacturers.
  9. Continuing worldwide business competition spurs reductions in production costs and increased productivity in almost every industry. Many of the savings will come from using robotics.
    • Although Europe is leading in small and medium enterprise manufacturing automation, the American auto industry is poised to use robotics in hundreds of new and innovative ways.
    • Also, the major robotics manufacturers are now producing more flexible, safe and easily trainable robotic products with customizations for non-auto industry applications and small and medium-sized manufacturers.
  10. There are many recent examples of venture capitalists entering the marketplace. In the last few months they have invested in agricultural and surveillance robots and drones.
A possible #11, and a macro driver for Japan, is the reduction of workforce and increase in seniors due to low birth and immigration rates. Even though it is a driver in Japan, it's different for many other countries. It's dynamic too. Japan is the worst case because they have little or no migrant labor but many EU countries have very low retirement ages - which are changing upward instead of acting as a driver. And the US is a mixed bag. It just seems too complex to enter as a near-term driver.

In each of these cases, roboticists are working with marketing and financial people to make sure that there is a product that can be built to meet a real business need at a cost that is profitable to the robotic company and beneficial to the buying company.

It is because of all of these factors, and their exponential effect on one another, that I see significant forward progress in the service robotics sector - progress that will translate into profits and disruptive robotic products within this decade.