The robotics landscape saw many ups and downs in 2018, as robots, autonomous systems, and machine learning continued to spread in markets around the world.
The growth of automation usage is disrupting several industries, such as manufacturing, supply chain/logistics, agriculture, healthcare, and construction. Companies are turning to robots and autonomous vehicles to address labor shortages, improve operational efficiencies, and find innovative ways to make humans safer.
At the same time, this growth hasn’t happened without some pain, as 2018 witnessed several high-profile company failures in some market segments.
The editors of Robotics Business Review have reviewed the top news from the past year. We’ve identified six major trends and how they could affect businesses for years to come.
Trend 1: Cobots rise, Rethink falls
Collaborative robots, a.k.a. cobots, continue to intrigue companies for their ability to work more safely alongside human employees in a factory, lab, or warehouse. Armed with an array of sensors that detect whether a human is close, cobots are smaller and slower than their industrial cousins, which are usually caged for worker safety.
This year saw continued growth and success for Universal Robots, the undisputed leader in cobots. Earlier this year, the company reported 2017 revenue of more than $170 million, a 72% increase over its 2016 performance.
Universal’s parent company, Teradyne, was also busy during 2018, as it acquired Denmark-based mobile robot manufacturer Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR). This has led many to wonder whether a system that combines cobot technology with mobile platforms, also known as mobile manipulation, would be coming down the road.
But while Universal Robots soared, another cobot pioneer found itself moving in the opposite direction. Boston-based Rethink Robotics, known for its Sawyer and Baxter models, suddenly shut down in October. The company’s demise was a sobering reminder about the difficulties of robotics startups and early nature of the cobot market.
Trend 2: Red flags for self-driving cars, but money keeps flowing
The giddy optimism and enthusiasm around self-driving cars got a major reality check this year, following the March 2018 fatality involving a pedestrian and an autonomous Uber vehicle. The crash put a temporary stop on testing by many companies, as they examined procedures and technology to see whether self-driving cars could continue to evolve toward Level 5 autonomy.
It wasn’t just the Uber crash that made headlines — several incidents involving Tesla vehicles made headlines in 2018. Often, the human drivers, who assumed that their vehicles were fully autonomous, were at fault.
These accidents have led many in the industry to question whether full autonomy for cars and other vehicles would be possible by 2020 — the goal set by many countries around the world. For example, organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics have said they will have Level 5 vehicles at the Games.
Despite the initial caution following the accident, several companies have continued their testing of self-driving vehicles, including the leaders in the space, Waymo (owned by Google’s Alphabet parent) and GM’s Cruise division.
In addition, investor money continues to flow to these companies, which are seeing big payoffs for the convergence of electric vehicles, self-driving technologies, and ride-sharing services.
Not only is money going to the car companies, but component makers developing sensors, lidar, computer vision, and AI software are all getting fuel from funding.
Autonomy has been applied to more than self-driving cars this year. For example, autonomous trucks have been moving into the mining industry and logistics. Mobile robot companies can thank the automotive industry for innovations in autonomy, as well as the lower cost of lidar, for its explosive growth in 2018.
In the coming year, we’ll see whether large investments pay off in more self-driving deployments around the world, where regulations still lag behind the development of the technology.
Trend 3: Mobile robots court supply chains, manufacturers, and last-mile delivery
Many industry observers continue to wonder whether robots will ever be able to complete multiple tasks, but that has a long way to go. However, one segment has taken a single type of robot – autonomous mobility – and run with it.
Fueled by a shortage of human workers for warehouse, along with increased consumer demand for products sold online (thank you, Amazon), autonomous mobile robots that move products from shelves to shipping saw continued growth in 2018.
Companies around the world continued to develop and deliver robots to major retailers, third-party logistics providers, and e-commerce order-fulfillment facilities. Investors have also taken notice, funneling million-dollar investments to mobile robot firms such as Geek+ and GreyOrange, which made a splash as it entered the U.S. market.
Beyond the supply chain and logistics space, autonomous mobile robots are moving materials around manufacturing floors, as well as in hospitals (see Aethon), hotels (Savioke), and other locations. Whether some of these companies can transition from a specific task, such as moving materials in a warehouse, to a different vertical, like moving materials across a campus, remains unclear.
In addition, with so many companies developing systems around materials handling, could consolidation be on the horizon?
Another area where mobile robots are disrupting the market is in the final phase of delivery — the “last mile.” Several startups in this space are deploying robots on wheels to deliver packages, food, and other items from a grocery store, restaurant, or local distribution center.
Mobile robots have a lot of competition, as companies determine whether the last mile of delivery should be handled by robots, aerial drones, or just gig-economy humans like Uber drivers (eventually to be replaced by self-driving vehicles).
Trend 4: Commercial drone operations prepare for takeoff
While aerial drones in the consumer sector have been around for years, the use of drones for commercial and industrial purposes has only just begun, following the 2016 rule changes instituted by the Federal Aviation Administration. Since then, many companies and startups have begun trial projects for applications that include drone deliveries, infrastructure inspection, public safety, and security monitoring, to name a few.
Software advances have allowed for drones to do more than just take photos or shoot video while up in the sky. Complex data analytics and machine learning algorithms now offer companies data across several industries.
Regulation adjustments by the FAA and the introduction of a drone integration pilot program have teamed up government, businesses, and drone providers with ways to experiment and test new applications for aerial drones.
The federal agency recently announced it had processed more than 50,000 applications through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability program, which gives drone operators near-instantaneous authorization to fly in controlled airspace and near airports.
While operations for drones going beyond visual line of sight still require an FAA waiver, many industry experts feel these regulations will be modified, and new autonomous software will make these operations safer.
Trend 5: China’s shadow looms large in AI, robotics race, but will it win?
This past year, Robotics Business Review continued to track automation developments across the globe, but one country was mentioned in nearly every international article.
Sure, South Korea might have a higher robot density (number of robots per 10,000 workers), and the U.S. may lead in innovation, but you can’t have a conversation about the global economy and robotics without China. The nation is working hard to take the lead in AI and robotics investments and end-user market share.
That’s not to say there are no challenges for multinational robotics suppliers and users in China. As RBR contributor Georg Stieler has noted, China’s “Made in China 2025” strategy is designed to nurture the country’s domestic production. China plans to shift from being the “world’s factory” and producing lower-end products to the global leader in cutting-edge technologies, including AI.
In addition, companies should be aware of ongoing concerns about intellectual property and increasing trade tensions between China and the U.S., as well as China and Germany. China is also working to take the lead in military applications for AI and robotics.
Trend 6: AI and RPA compete for top buzzword of the year
We’ll admit it right here: Using the term AI is a lot easier when writing headlines than using something like machine learning or deep learning. Acronyms for those terms — ML and DL — haven’t caught on as much as using artificial intelligence as an umbrella term to indicate software and additional learning techniques across several industries.
One robotics executive joked with us this year that startups are getting a 10x valuation by just adding the term AI to their pitches. It’s not far from the truth – companies that claim some form of AI in their product or service frequently show up in the Robot Investments Weekly column on Robotics Business Review.
When applying AI to robotics, we are still in the very early stages of anything other than research or very small pilot programs. When people talk about AI with robots, it’s usually around the concept of predictive maintenance – software that can examine data on the robots and alert production staff when parts are about to break down.
In the warehouse space, AI has made some progress in capturing data from mobile robots that create better pathway navigation options, as well as deep learning for object-picking robots.
But for the most part, excitement about AI is centered around other vertical markets, such as the healthcare and financial industries. It may be a few years before manufacturing and other industrial companies fully benefit from advanced AI processes.
Speaking of process, AI has competition in the buzzword of the year contest from robotic process automation (RPA). If you thought AI buzz was overhyped, RPA comes in a close second. Our cynical side figured that people felt that by replacing the word “business process” with “robotic process,” they would get a lot more money from investors. RPA companies are now popping up all over the place, and they are getting funding.
But like blockchain and other emerging technologies that get a lot of media buzz, there’s a downside to all this RPA madness. The “trough of disillusionment” may soon be coming, as companies realize the difficulties in deploying RPA projects for their enterprise workers.
Like physical robots, software “bots” have a lot of expectations placed on them by humans, who are expecting that they will be able to do everything and anything immediately. Reality suggests otherwise, but we’ll still keep an eye on this market in 2019 in case it transfers over into physical automation efforts.
What’s up for 2019?
As 2018 closes, the next question becomes, “What should we expect in 2019?” Many of these trends will continue, obviously, but there are lots of other trends that ripple outward from them as well.
Now that you know what happened this year, attend our special webcast on Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 2 p.m., where Robotics Business Review editors Gene Demaitre and Keith Shaw present “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Trends in 2018 and Predictions for 2019.” The two editors will discuss their favorite trends from this year, and gaze into their special crystal balls to give you a head start on the trends that will matter in 2019 in the world of robotics, automation, AI, and autonomy.