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2018 in review...

Strong market drivers have ensured that the demand for Advanced Machines and robots (AMRs) continued throughout 2018. Businesses face significant challenges such as limited and increasingly scarce resources, including people and skills, changing customer expectations and behaviours, such as the demand for ever faster deliveries of orders, and the rise of new competition; Amazon is just one big company infiltrating markets that historically were the domain of smaller specialist firms. The adoption of robotics and automation can offer companies some solutions to these weighty problems.

At the beginning of the year we made these core predictions:

  1. Co-bots would increase
  2. AI would begin to integrate with robotics
  3. Autonomous vehicles would become more evident
  4. Advances into Cloud Robotics would accelerate
  5. The business model Robotics as a Service (RaaS) would develop more as an industry

But this is only the beginning

For many of these predictions, we had noted a trend gaining momentum and as such, it was always the case that each theme we highlighted could have longer term influence, as well as making an impact during 2018. In that respect, we have been very accurate.

Given that these were emerging trends which have shown an impact over the past 12 months, we can also confidently forecast that these same factors will shape this developing sector throughout 2019 and beyond. Here’s what we saw from each during 2018.

Co-bots on the rise

We predicted that co-bots would increase and this has indeed been the case. Business Facilities described 2018 as “the year that co-bots really entered the mainstream”, referencing Mercedes-Benz move towards a co-bot dominated production line, away from purely robotic systems. The recent Interact Analysis report found that the co-bot market has grown by more than 60% in 2018. The industry was worth under $400m at the end of 2017 but is now on track to be valued at nearly $600m.

However, this growth does not mean that all in the garden is rosy for the co-bot supplier. 2018 saw Rethink Robotics, a pioneering firm in the development of the co-bot, shut down. The market is challenging as it is still small but numbers of vendors are increasing and customer demand is inevitably fragmented and diverse.

SMEs are the current drivers of the growth in co-bot demand, both through new SMEs adopting collaborative robots because of increased awareness and through existing users choosing to further automate and purchase additional co-bots. Longer term major Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are likely to adopt co-bots in greater quantities. This is expected to occur over the next four years, so the shift could certainly become more apparent during 2019.

AI in robotics

Despite popular confusion over the distinction between robotics and AI, often mistakenly considered one and the same, the two research fields have long been separated for both academic and practical applications. We predicted that advancements in both fields, particularly in terms of the reduced cost of AI systems, would see greater integration of AI and robotics.

Examples of AI in robotics did indeed become more evident during 2018. Early in the year, American GAP distribution centres were revealed to be working with SORT robots, which utilise AI technology to identify objects and then apply a ‘grasping technology’ to decide how to access the object, how to pick it up and how to get it to the correct bin. Human workers at the sites now only have to do the picking between 5% and 10% of the time.

In October, a technology firm announced the successful introduction of seven on-site robots at the University of British Columbia. The robots patrol and clean the University campus and are able to learn on the job. If the landscape changes, introducing new obstacles, the robots can recognise this, integrate that knowledge and adapt their behaviour as a result without human intervention.

Most recently, in November, it was revealed that a UK Agritech start-up had successfully combined AI with robotics creating a way of planting more precisely, gaining better yields and reducing pollution and waste. Three separate robots record their activity and report back to a central AI system which manages the operation and makes decisions.

These exciting projects are only the start and we anticipate that integrated AI in robotics will become more commonplace throughout 2019 and in subsequent years.

Mobile autonomy

As anticipated, we’ve seen mobile autonomous vehicles hitting the headlines this year and the first regular robotic deliveries shifted closer to becoming a widespread, everyday reality.

The first fleet of delivery robots has been officially launched in Milton Keynes. Hundreds of robots are now geared up to deliver around the area, mainly focused on food deliveries but able to carry small packages if customers require. Milton Keynes was chosen as the best UK location to launch the robots because of its modern road and pavement infrastructure which is very robot friendly. So far the fleet has operated successfully, with between 10 and 20 robots per day at work on the street – the company reported earlier in the year that with over 100,000 miles of delivery journeys completed not one robot had been vandalised or stolen .

The same robots are now delivering lunches and other supplies for tech workers in Silicon Valley and the company responsible has reported plans to expand from two to 20 corporate and university campus bases in 2019. Other robotic delivery fleets are already at various stages of testing around the globe including California, San Francisco and Switzerland. It would certainly appear that the mobile autonomous robot is here to stay and will appear in more cities in the very near future.

Cloud robotics

As 2018 began, we predicted that the new era of cloud robotics was upon us and we were right. Cloud robotics, the use of remote computing resources to provide robots with greater capacity for memory, computational power, collective learning and interconnectivity, can bring huge commercial advantages to industries utilising the technology .

Behind the scenes teams have been hard at work to make cloud robotics a fully accessible reality and now 2019 is set to see the launch of two big platforms from two of the biggest players on the global stage: Google and Amazon.

The introduction of the Google Cloud Robotics platform for developers will formally mark the mainstream arrival of cloud based robotics. The sophisticated new system will combine AI, robotics and the cloud to offer “an open ecosystem of automation solutions” using cloud-connected collaborative robots. It will enable efficient robot automation in dynamic environments and give developers access to all of Google’s AI and data management capabilities .

Amazon has also announced the introduction of a cloud based robotics testing platform; AWS RoboMaker. This cloud-based service utilises the widely deployed open-source software Robot Operating System (ROS) to provide developers with a place to develop and test robotics applications. RoboMaker can be used to build robots, add intelligent functions, simulate and test robots in a variety of environments, and manage and update robot fleets.

Robotics as a Service (RaaS)

The Robotics as a Service (RaaS) industry, in which robotics providers do not simply sell their products, but rather rent or lease them with solutions to customers as a full service, is developing quickly as we predicted. Precision Reports has forecast a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.73% for the market between 2018 and 2022.

The 2019 emergence of the cloud robotics platforms is of huge significance for the industry. With the cloud providing easy access to almost endless different programmes, allowing each robot to receive customised instructions so it can operate with ease in a new environment, RaaS becomes even more effective.

Professional service robots will continue to dominate the RaaS market for years to come owing to the growth in logistics applications. Experts have forecast that during 2019, 30% of all commercial service robot applications will be in the form of a RaaS model, helping users reduce the potentially crippling costs of robot deployment.

To date, two of the fastest growing industries utilising RaaS are healthcare and manufacturing. The manufacturing industry is the sector that currently invests the most in robots but healthcare is picking up and is expected to spend more in the coming years. Warehousing and order fulfilment are also gearing up for RaaS as a way to enhance their operational efficiency, increase ROI and ultimately protect their upfront capital. During 2019 expect these other industries to become more evident RaaS users and a source of increasing investment in the industry.

Overall we have seen that the trends we identified have indeed made a notable impact on the robotics field in 2018, with lots more still to come. However this is a sector that is constantly changing and developing and we have already spotted some new trends that will be influential in 2019 and beyond. If you’d like to know more about these, stay tuned for part two of our robotics trends for 2019 feature.

At Tharsus we’re heading into 2019 with big plans for our future. You can learn all about these from our CEO Brian Palmer by visiting our website here. If robotics and automation are on your agenda this year and you’re looking for a partner in your new project, we can help.

John Toal is Director of Business Development at Tharsus