The futuristic world filled with robots that society has fantasized about for decades started to feel like it had arrived in 2017. While you didn’t see clusters of robots walking down the street yet, we saw robotic innovations break into the mainstream, bridging the gap between science fiction and tangible.
We saw an explosion of artificial intelligence advances, a huge surge in human-robot collaboration with the presence of more “cobots” in factories as well as the real presence of robots in the home. The industry is just scratching the surface as far as robots being able to sense and adapt to different environments, and provide immediate value and productivity across a wide variety of use cases from consumer to industry.
On the physical side, we saw a shift on the mechanical side of robotics. Robots became stronger, faster, and more agile – starting to more closely mirror human movements. Did we mention, we witnessed a robot successfully do a backflip last year? 2017 was also the year our company, Genesis Robotics, introduced our signature LiveDrive technology, a gearless-actuator which changes how robots will be built.
The market for robotics is also growing at an incredible pace. There are organizations that are growing at 70 percent per year. The collaborative robotic space alone is growing at 50 percent annually according to market research.
But despite the increased visibility and economic interest, the impending robotics revolution is still just entering the growth stage. 2018 will be a year of shiny new robots and solutions, and society is now ready for it, with growth expectations being more predictable. You’re going to see continued investment, with a dramatic increase in consolidation across the industry with more acquisitions.
As the CEO of a growing robotics R&D company, I am excited about the prospects of the new year. Not just for Genesis Robotics, our technologies in development and potential industry collaborations, but for the industry as a whole. I have identified 5 trends that you will likely be hearing plenty about in the coming months…
AI will Deliver New Skill and Performance
It is no surprise that A.I. will remain the most talked about and invested in aspect of robotics. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to continue to be one of our industry’s biggest trends, primarily because of all the research and energy behind it. Remember, it is not just limited to robotics. Some of the trendiest consumer products – as evident with the Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and Google Home – use advanced A.I. and they are being adopted by the masses.
Most of the technology around A.I. is uniform – robotics industry or not. The engines that drive those consumer products are the same engines that could be applied into a machine learning or artificial intelligence environment in robotics. So, our industry will naturally benefit from these advancements.
Physical robots ( especially cobots) will become more intuitive and capable in automated tasks, paving the way for more collaborative, productive and cost-effective workplaces – particularly in the manufacturing sectors. On the consumer level, these technologies will help robots move beyond vacuum cleaners to take on new or more complex tasks like security, eldercare, etc. Early examples are the Aeolus robot or Ubtech’s Walker Security robot launched at CES this year.
AGVs Take Cruise Control to the Next Level
The way companies like Amazon have successfully implemented autonomous guided vehicles (AGV) into their manufacturing floors the past few years has opened up the doors for expanded applications. It is a good bet this year that we are going to see that same distribution methodology being executed in other areas including possibly on our roads with self-driving delivery platforms.
More and more AGV makers are now including robot arms on the platform in an industrial setting, this creates whole new use cases for AGVs. AGVs being used to re-stock shelves, deliver medical supplies in a hospital, and do basic package delivery in business neighbourhoods is not long the stuff of science fiction, and is just around the corner.
We might even start to see road way AGVs that will run autonomously on certain sections of roadway like a highway, with a human “pilot” guiding them out of the factory or through complex city streets. For example, a situation where an AGV could be fully autonomous on the interstate before the “pilot” takes over the “last mile”.
With safety and regulatory issues, seeing fully-automated vehicles (or drones) travelling on all roads (or skies) is still too far from being normalized in 2018. However, we will see more visible testing and progress for sure in the year.
Halfway Adoption Leads to Hybrid Solutions
When you look at many past advancements, the road to mass adoption was incremental. Before we saw all-electric vehicles like a Tesla Model S on the road, the auto industry introduced hybrid models to ease the transition both in terms of consumer readiness and technology availability. Similar to what I just talked about with the adoption of delivery AGVs, having the machines partially autonomous is the short-term strategy.
I can see a hybrid autonomy relevant to a wide variety of robotics from consumer to assistive. For example, you may not see a fully-autonomous robot doing your dishes in my home in the next five years, but some kind of basic robot with assistive lifting capacity for the elderly or disabled is already here. Another scenario might be a temporary exoskeleton to provide the elderly or disabled with assistance in lifting heavy items around the home. That, to me, is a hybrid model – robots that are there to help with human control, but not yet fully autonomous.
Because Who Likes Mowing the Lawn?
It is inevitable that robots will have the same mainstream adoption as the PC from the ’80s, the Internet in the late ’90s, or the smartphone in the past decade. Many technology and robotics experts have forecasted that there will be over tens of millions of new robots in place within the next five years, with Softbank’s CEO predicting more robots than people within 30 years. This was made evident throughout consumer shows like CES last week, home robotics are coming–and coming fast. Just check out Honda’s 3E robot portfolio.
As sensor and navigation technology improves, so does the safety enabling the possibility of fully autonomous home robots like lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners becoming platforms for new types of in-home use. These programmable robots with 360-degree cameras and sensors will be able to understand the layout of your home and yard, and complete repetitive tasks, all while charging themselves when they are done or low on battery. Mount an arm on these platforms and they become the perfect tool for the elderly or disabled to be assisted with a whole new class of tasks. Home robots at this level of sophistication won’t be on the market in 2018, but you can bet prototypes will be developed and improved upon daily.
Like all new, shiny consumer electronics goods to the market they will sit in the luxury category for a while, but will eventually become standard and accessible to the public.
Robots Get Physical Makeovers
Fitting example as it is, we all know that millions of people worldwide flood gyms in January with the goal of improving their bodies and performance. Well, the same goes for the robotics industry. While AI advancements are understandably a sexy topic, people overlook the importance of the mechanical innovations in robots. Remember, a robot needs to be nimble, fast and precise enough to execute the movements at the same speed of AI—the industry is cognizant of that.
Direct-drive and gearless actuation similar to what Genesis is doing with the LiveDrive is the first step in improving the movements and safety of robots. There are still many other improvements needed to the “bones and muscles” of the robot before it can move in a more fluid manner, but direct-drive actuation is the foundation.
Improving the mechanical aspects of robotics is just one (but big) piece of the puzzle as the robotics revolution continues to trend upwards. 2018 will be a good year for robotics as we get ready for the robotics adoption inflexion point. What this year will bring is the foundation of thinking and innovation that will quietly be the catalyst to the tipping point. The futuristic world filled with robots is starting to become visible, but it still lives in the future and we are taking the right steps to get there.
Mike Hilton is the CEO of Genesis Robotics.