Robotics Prediction Scorecard 2019: How Did We Do?
December 30, 2019      

While it is always fun to make predictions for the future, in order to determine whether you should put any faith in these predictions you have to look back at previous predictions. That is what we now present, as we evaluate our 2019 predictions and get our scorecard to see whether we were on the nose or missed the mark.

Keep in mind that the ultimate success or failure of these predictions are subjective by the editors who made them. So take our “grade” on a hit or miss with a grain of salt – your evaluation of whether a prediction was successful or not may differ from ours.

Prediction #1: Mobile piece picking

We’ve often stated that the ‘holy grail’ in warehouse robots will be a combination of a mobile robot that also includes a robotic arm that can grab items off the shelf. Often referred to as “mobile manipulation,” we predicted that “mobile piece picking is coming”, and for the most part we are putting this one in the win column.

Team DeRAILers from the Georgia Institute of Technologies won the FetchIt! Mobile Manipulation Challenge. Image: Fetch Robotics

During 2019, while we didn’t see any large-scale deployments of mobile manipulation products, we did see continued movement from companies such as IAM Robotics and Magazino, which utilize some form of mobile manipulation offerings.

We also saw robot companies team up on mobile manipulation research efforts – such as Clearpath and Franka Emika, Olis Robotics and Olympus Controls, and Waypoint Robotics working with Southie Autonomy on a 5G-enabled mobile manipulation project.

Other companies working on robots that can move and grab items include Diligent Robotics, Clearpath Robotics, and ABB Robotics, which gave a demonstration of a mobile robot that could also grab and carry items in a laboratory environment.

Research on this concept continues as well – a team from Georgia Tech won the Mobile Manipulation Challenge at ICRA 2019, which was sponsored by Fetch Robotics.

With so many projects and robots being developed, we’re confident that this trend will continue in 2020.

Prediction #2: Large-scale commercial drone deployments

We were a bit too ambitious with our prediction that pilot programs in the aerial robotics or commercial drone space would graduate quickly to large-scale deployments. In 2019, we saw continued testing of different deployments, mainly through the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program in different areas of the country.

Alaska drone flight BVLOS

The Skyfront Perimeter UAV taking off from the Alyeska trans-Alaska pipeline right of way near Fox for the first true beyond-visual-line-of-sight commercial flight, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration under the small UAS rule. The UAV flew 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor. Image credit: UAF Geophysical Institute photographer Sean Tevebaugh

Achievements in Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, as well as drone delivery, highlighted much of the year in this space, but it feels like until more standardized regulations occur, large-scale deployments will likely be delayed in favor of individual pilot programs or one-off operations.

The FAA did award an air carrier and operator certification to UPS Flight Forward in October, which means that revenue-generating package deliveries could soon escalate. UPS and CVS Health signed an agreement to explore drone delivery options for items that include delivery of prescriptions and retail products to the homes of CVS Pharmacy customers from retail stores, in addition to other use cases. The Flight Forward division already delivers medical samples by drone at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, N.C.

We will call this a miss – basically pilot programs continued and some new agreements were established, but the use of “large-scale” puts that particular prediction in doubt.

Prediction #3: Autonomous vehicles move from testing to fleets

Here is another case where we think we were a bit too optimistic. Self-driving vehicle development and research continued in 2019, but again, large-scale development was not pushed as forward as we had expected at the beginning of the year.

Most of the news that came out around self-driving cars in 2019 focused on last-mile delivery efforts, such as Nuro teaming up with Kroger and Walmart on grocery deliveries, or with Domino’s Pizza testing in Houston. In some ways, you could say that Starship Technologies’ deployment of smaller robot fleets on college campuses, including at George Mason University and Purdue University, constitutes a definition of the term “fleet”, but we think that would be cheating slightly.

predictions scorecard 2019 waymo

Source: Waymo

While Waymo did deploy a public self-driving ride-hailing service in Phoenix at the end of 2018, the company did not expand this to other cities. Still, it’s pretty impressive, as the company announced it has served an average of 1,500 active riders per month, tripled the number of weekly rides since January 2019, and has achieved more than 100,000 total rides since launching in 2017.

Like the autonomous drone space, the development of large-scale fleets of self-driving cars will likely be delayed until more standardized regulations across different states are enacted, or when the federal government gets involved. This is unlikely to happen in 2020 with the election season in full swing.

Prediction #4: Consolidation is coming for robot companies

We predicted that robot companies would be acquired by larger companies, but not necessarily for their technologies – instead, they would be looking for talent for those companies. This one is a bit hard to prove – the big acquisitions that occurred were more likely as a result of the acquiring company wanting or needing the technology in addition to the talent.

For example, Shopify’s acquisition of 6 River Systems was more about Shopify needing to offer mobile robotics solutions for its customers. Similarly, the Teradyne acquisition of AutoGuide Mobile Robots gives the company a play in the autonomous forklift space.

We are going to chalk this one up as a miss – mainly because the talent acquisition part didn’t really come to mean much in 2019, and most of the acquisitions were based on technology. We could claim credit for the prediction when it comes to the acquisition of Robotics Business Review and RoboBusiness by WTWH Media, since the “talent” in this case was yours truly, but again that would feel like a cheat.

Prediction #5: Edge processing, 5G seen as enablers

This one was pretty vague, so we are going to say that this did happen in 2019. Mainly because some carriers launched 5G networks, enabling companies to begin testing of different applications and systems to take advantage of 5G speeds and low latency. We also saw many companies continue to talk with us about 5G, edge and other technologies in terms of robotics, so we feel like this trend will also continue.

Prediction #6: Robotics grow in construction, agriculture, healthcare

This one was another easy prediction to make, and in 2019 we did see movement in all three of these sectors. In construction, for example, Dusty Robotics announced its robot that can assist companies with accurate layout plans for buildings. Boston Dynamics, makers of the Spot quadruped robot, announced partnerships with construction firms for its robots.

boston dynamics spot holobuilder

Image: HoloBuilder

In agriculture, companies like FarmWise saw increased investments in their robots, and we saw agriculture included in many of the areas expected to see drone growth.

Surgical robots in health care continued to grow in 2019, and we also saw companies like ABB develop robots for non-surgical healthcare use, including laboratory scenarios with its robot arms and mobile robots.

Prediction #7: Robots will deliver more ‘stuff’

While we are still very far away from large-scale deployments of robots or drones in the last-mile delivery space, 2019 saw many new deployments and testing programs in this space. As previously mentioned, Nuro teamed up with Kroger and Walmart to test mobile robot delivery; Amazon continued developing its Scout robot; and Starship deployed on several college campuses.

George Mason University Starship mobile robot fleet

Delivery robots from Starship are ready to serve the George Mason University campus with on-demand food and beverage options. Source: Starship Technologies

Pizza, other meals and small package deliveries (such as essential medical supplies) appear to be the best use case for these smaller mobile robots, but we’re also seeing some larger-vehicle testing programs, such as those from Refraction AI, Gatik and Boxbot.

We are claiming a win on this prediction.

Prediction #8: Public safety agencies will adopt drones in droves

We are back to a “swing and a miss” on this one. Perhaps it is because we do not cover this space as much as others in the robotics world, but we did not see a lot of use cases or public announcements about public safety agencies adopting drones. We think the use of the term “droves” killed us here.

While drones were used in situations such as battling the California wildfires, firefighters also had to deal with amateur drone pilots getting in the way of firefighting efforts. In September, winds from Hurricane Dorian destroyed a cargo hangar where supplies were ready to be delivered via drone. It is more likely that the FAA will issue warnings to drone pilots to not interfere with emergency operations.

It is likely that public safety organizations will deploy drones when appropriate, but the prediction about “droves” was a bit of a stretch.

Prediction #9: Exoskeletons will move beyond healthcare, military applications

guardian XO exoskeletons prediction scorecard

Image: Sarcos Robotics

We are going to take a win on this one. Earlier this month, Sarcos Robotics announced the Alpha version of its Guardian XO industrial exoskeleton, which aims to help workers with lifting tasks. Meanwhile, Ekso Bionics continues to work on its EksoGT, EksoVest and EksoZeroG offerings for workers in construction, demolition, and industrial applications.

We expect to see continued growth in the exoskeleton space as companies begin to deploy these units to help protect their workers, moving it beyond rehabilitation use cases.

Prediction #10: Robots will prepare more food

Win. We saw many companies grow their food robotics companies in 2019, including CafeX, Briggo, Chowbotics, and Miso Robotics. For the most part, these robotic-supported restaurants were successful, although we are a bit concerned about Boston’s Spyce, which announced in November it was shutting down the restaurant in preparation for a renovation and new menu items. Hopefully the restaurant comes back bigger and better than ever, as we were fans of its robot-prepared food bowls.

Picnic pizza robot

Image: Picnic

In the pizza space, we saw the launch of Picnic, which automates pizza preparation, giving mom-and-pop pizza operations as well as catering companies more robotics-enabled support.

It feels like robots involved in food preparation will be more likely to grow in the kiosk- or vending-machine approach (like Briggo and Chowbotics), rather than full-scale restaurants, but maybe that’s a prediction for 2020.

Overall, how did we do?

In looking at our predictions, our scorecard says we were on the mark for about six out of the 10 predictions, while four of our predictions either were too bold, or have yet to pan out. We are pretty confident that many of the “misses” will eventually hit, but we cannot take credit for them in 2019, at least.

So what does 2020 have in store? We have already posted several prediction posts from industry experts, so the only ones left will be from us – stay tuned for predictions from Robotics Business Review and The Robot Report editors, coming soon to a website near you.