We’re now officially in 2019, and all signs indicate that it will be a bigger year than ever for robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles. If you’re in the automation business or are thinking of investing in robots, we’ll have a lot to share.
But before we jump into the latest news, the editors of Robotics Business Review are putting on our own wizards’ hats — scarily enough, we likely own some — to make some predictions about 2019.
These predictions are not in any particular order, so No. 1 is just as likely to happen as is No. 10. We first announced six of these predictions during our 2018 Year in Review webcast, so let’s start with those:
1: Mobile piece picking is coming
The number of robots in warehouses, e-commerce order-fulfillment centers, and logistics facilities climbed steadily in the past year, as companies followed Amazon’s example and deployed autonomous mobile platforms. These mobile robots helped reduce the miles traveled and pounds lifted by human workers.
Robots are increasingly used for repetitive and precise tasks such as sorting and packaging, but most of these are stationary models. With the expansion of collaborative robot arms or cobots, why not combine robots that are safer to use around humans with those that can move around?
IAM Robotics is a pioneer in this space and recently raised $20 million in funding. Last year’s purchase of Mobile Industrial Robots by Teradyne, which owns cobot leader Universal Robots, could be a precursor to mobile manipulation.
This “holy grail” of warehouse robots isn’t simple for an automation business to do, however. Machine vision, a variety of grippers, and autonomous mobile robot sizes all depend on what is being handled. High-variability, small-batch orders, such as those in e-commerce, require a degree of machine learning and dexterity that is only now being reached.
Still, it’s just a matter of time before robotics vendors add offerings to help meet the needs of chronically shorthanded warehouses and consumer expectations of instant gratification.
2: Commercial drone deployments to skyrocket
Pilot programs for commercial drone applications continued around the world in 2018. Businesses began testing and gathering data to see whether drones could be a useful alternative to more manual processes.
For instance, in construction, drones can monitor a building’s progress against a blueprint, and in precision agriculture, they can observe moisture levels. Robots and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can also more easily and safely go under bridges, through pipelines, or up to utility towers than human workers.
In 2019, we expect these pilot programs to lead to large-scale deployments for enterprises, while smaller companies turn to automation businesses to serve their needs.
In addition, hardware, software, and network connectivity improvements will provide additional opportunities for drone applications. For example, on the software side, we expect more autonomous systems for flying, as well as analytical software that can provide more insights from a drone than today.
3: Autonomous vehicles move from testing to fleets, but not yet for individual consumers
The major automakers and big tech companies are continuing to push the needle on self-driving car capabilities. After some well-publicized accidents last year, some automation business commentators have speculated that disillusionment could slow or even halt the advance of autonomous vehicles.
We don’t see that happening — too much money is being spent for vendors to suddenly scale back and admit defeat. If anything, more funding will be thrown at developing better sensors, components, and software for driverless cars, trucks, and buses.
These efforts will continue to provide benefits for other industries that need mobile autonomy — such as the warehouse and logistics space.
Self-driving technology is likely to proceed faster than social or regulatory readiness. Toyota has stated that it will have some Level 5 autonomous cars at the 2020 Summer Olympics, but we believe such demonstrations will be very limited in scope.
Indeed, we will likely see fleets of vehicles with self-driving capabilities, but these will be limited to roads where speed limits are lower and there’s less interaction with conventional vehicles. Think of closed-loop situations like airport shuttles or campus settings. The automation business is also working on long-haul trucking.
4: Consolidation is coming for robot companies, but not necessarily for their technology
The number of new automation businesses has continued to grow, as new industries begin to see the benefits of adding robots and AI to their processes.
As more companies enter a market, the likelihood of corporate consolidation becomes greater as well. We expect that larger companies will acquire some of these robotics companies in 2019, but not necessarily for their technology. Rather, they will likely be acquiring the robotics talent from that company.
Witness what Universal Robots did recently when it hired former employees of Rethink Robotics, which shut down in October 2018. In that case, it was because of a shutdown, but we anticipate that many companies will “acqui-hire” in response to a severe shortage of skilled software and hardware engineers.
5: Edge processing, 5G seen as new enablers for IIoT
For the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to work, data needs to flow freely among numerous connected devices, including sensors, robots and drones, and cloud-based analytics. Telecommunications providers have told us that 5G could enable a higher level of functionality.
In the end, IIoT’s value will be measured by the quality of the insights from all these connected sources and big data, as automation businesses rebrand themselves as data providers.
6: Robotics will grow in construction, agriculture, and healthcare
While the bulk of robots are being deployed in manufacturing and supply chains, the data indicates that more markets will be investing in robotics beyond those two.
Most of the people we’ve spoken with agree that construction, agriculture, and healthcare will see the most investments in robotics, drones, and AI in the coming year. Whether these robots include autonomous ground vehicles, machines that can pick fruits or vegetables, or commercial drones (see above), there are lots of opportunities for automation businesses.
On the healthcare side of the automation business, it’s not just about surgical robots. It’s also about delivering materials such as food, medicine, or linens. In addition, caregivers such as nurses could use robots for dirty, dull, or dangerous tasks.
7: Robots will deliver more of our ‘stuff’ than ever before
The past few years have seen immense growth in the supply chain space, and we expect that to continue this year as well. After another banner holiday season for Amazon, there’s no indication that our consumer appetites for quickly delivered products will diminish anytime soon.
Because of the continued labor shortage in this market, robots will be needed in all aspects of the supply chain — from grabbing items off shelves in a warehouse, moving products at a distribution center, to transporting those products across the country, to delivering them to the doorstep.
The “last-mile” portion still has its share of challenges — and we’re likely to see mobile robots, rather than aerial drones, performing that task, at least in more populated urban areas.
For the suburbs, you’ll likely still see the UPS or FedEx trucks moving packages around, but perhaps a robot will deliver the package from the truck to the door.
8: Public safety agencies will adopt drones in droves
There’s growing evidence that police, fire, and first responders can accomplish their goals better, faster, or more cost-effectively with UAVs than with previous methods. When a hiker or nursing home resident goes missing, an aerial drone can be dispatched more quickly and less expensively than using a helicopter, for example.
We expect a big push by public safety agencies to purchase or buy services from an automation business in these scenarios — we’ve already seen drones being used to help monitor wildfires in California and to assess damage from hurricanes in the Southeast.
While the general public is more accepting of drones being used in this way, it’s still unclear whether police and other agencies will be using drones for security purposes. Tethered drones already monitor crowds at public events, but privacy advocates are a bit more wary when they are used for surveillance or other purposes.
Security cameras are already everywhere in large cities, but drones add the dimension of mobility.
9: Exoskeletons will move beyond healthcare, military applications
For many years, developers have rightly focused on using exoskeletons to help people who need assistance in moving, such as the elderly or combat veterans. We expect those developments to continue, but we’ve also seen such wearable technology in other applications.
A larger potential market includes assisting and preventing injuries for orderlies who must move patients, factory workers, and cashiers who have to stand all day. Baggage handlers at Narita Airport in Japan are already testing exoskeletons.
10: Robots will prepare more food, but that won’t guarantee success for restaurants
We’ve already eaten food bowls prepared by robots at Spyce in Boston, and we look forward to trying a robot-prepared pizza sometime in 2019. But the ultimate success or failure of these companies will not depend on whether a robot has prepared the food; it will rest on the quality and consistency of the food being cooked.
Most people will visit a robot restaurant once for the novelty, but getting them to return repeatedly is a major challenge. As more robots enter restaurants, we’ll likely see some failures. They won’t necessarily be the robots’ fault — it could be just the “location, location, location” of the restaurant or the fickle nature of customer tastes.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, we and our panelists will look at the challenges facing robots in restaurants, healthcare, and other service uses. We look forward to continuing to watch automation business trends this year.