Currently approaching $22B annually, the global robotics market will grow by another $7B to $29B by 2018, forecasts a recent report from BCC Reseach. The current market value is slated to increase at a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.9% between 2013 and 2018.
What?s driving growth?
So what?s driving this growth? One factor that the report vigorously puts forth is robot ?situational awareness? as a major influence: that is, endowing a robot with ?a ?dynamic sense of place? that allows truly autonomous operation.? In short, rudimentary human-like senses in sight, hearing, touch, etc. to improve job performance and productivity and also to better equip robots to interact with humans.
Situational awareness tools for productivity gains, problem solving and robot-human-interaction have been popping onto the scene for a while now: this year?s ProMat/Automate had new offerings from Recognition Robotics and Cognex; some robot manufacturers admit to being close to mastering true situational awareness technology, while still other developers are marrying Kinect to a host of possibilities.
But do any of these impart a sense of being an industry driver? An industry driver capable of moving some or a large chunk of that anticipated $7B push to $29B by 2018?
Moment of transition for robotics industry
According to Global Information, Inc. (GII), the stakes couldn?t be higher ?Situational awareness is the single most critical quality required by a robot before it can safely work alongside humans?not as a tool, but as a partner. In the broader sense, a robot’s acquisition of situational awareness,? continues GII, ?also marks the transition moment for the industry, when robotics steps beyond being a sustaining technology and enters the realm of disruptive technologies, with the promise and uncertainty that such an advance implies.?
BCC Research went looking.
Patent search and analysis
One stop was at the U.S. Patent Office to look through its recent filings for inklings as to what is happening in the field of situational awareness. Good choice, thinks Soonwoo Hong with the World Intellectual Property Association. ?In recent years,? he says, ?customized computerized databases of patent information? have become the new tools of choice. With them a researcher can gather data to put together patterns of ?patenting activities in a sector, technology or company to ascertain or forecast the direction of technical change, or ascertain the relative technological position of a company in a marketplace.?
What?s more, the searches are accurate. In a recent paper in the Journal of Intellectual Property Rights titled Applicability of Patent Information in Technological Forecasting, the authors show that patent information indeed can ?anticipate the direction and speed of technological trends enabling the early detection of enabling technologies.? They reckon that such exploratory forecasting is most accurate looking forward in the one- to five-year range, which puts situational awareness right in the wheelhouse of BCC?s report.
BCC reports that their patent research reveals ?two clear signals that a fundamental change in the industry has begun.? The first is a generalized look at the rate of innovation taking place in robotics, which the report says is ?rapidly accelerating.? And that ?during 2012, the number of U.S. patent filings that referenced robots in their abstracts rose sharply, to an average of nine per week, twice the number of those during the industry’s first thirty years.?
One signal, however, stands out among all others in this phase of rapid acceleration. That signal is in the ?nature of the ideas protected by those patents.? It seems that a large number of the over 700 patents in robotics taken out since 2011 concern ?a robot’s ability to recognize and interact with its surroundings.? In short, ?a dynamic “sense of place” that allows truly autonomous operation.?
Sense of place: bin picking to automobiles
A growing interest area for robots with vision capabilities and depth perception is in bin picking, a place until recently the domain of humans. Edward Minch at Kawasaki Robotics (USA) sees advancements in vision technology combined with improved force sensing, as one of numerous bright spots for the robotics industry.
?These advancements will help the robotics industry penetrate into new markets, such as consumer electronic equipment and automotive component assembly and random bin picking.
Robots can ?see? and have a sense of touch. Force sensors use feedback from servomotors to tell how hard the robot is pushing on a part during assembly processes such as driving a screw.?
A recent Robotics Online article reports that bin picking is one application several leaders in the robotics industry have high hopes for in 2013.
John Burg, president of Ellison Technologies Automation, is one, saying ?I see rapid expansion of three-dimensional bin picking, the ability to retrieve randomly arranged products from a bin.? Terry Zarnowski, director of sales and marketing with Schneider Packaging Equipment agrees, saying that ?Bin picking is now a viable reality.?
Many experts contend that automobiles hold the ultimate key to rapid deployment of robot situational awareness. Elmar Degenhart, chairman of Continental Automotive Systems says a significant percentage of consumers already are prepared to spend about $3,000 for such automated robotic functions on their vehicles.
Following Google?s foray into the realm of the driverless car, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, BMW, Volvo, and Cadillac, have all begun testing driverless vehicles. So far, news has centered on developments in California and Nevada, with Nissan opening a research center in Silicon Valley expressly devoted to furthering the technology.
With robot bin picking edging its way into the annual $160B world of materials handling and with millions of automobiles and trucks manufactured worldwide each year headed toward enhanced sensory awareness, the picture of situational awareness being a significant market driver begins to take on great clarity.