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As 2018 began, we set out our predictions for the trends that would shape the robotics industry in the year to come. The impact of these trends in the last 12 months has been clear and evident and will continue to be important to the sector. What new factors are poised to make a difference in 2019?

In part one of our ‘Robotic trends for 2019’ series we reviewed the specific factors we had identified and how they had progressed in 2018. You can find out more about what we learned in the first part of our series.

However, this is an industry that is constantly changing and evolving. Whilst the trends we predicted for 2018 are long term and most likely will retain their importance in the years ahead, there are others still emerging that we have yet to examine closely. Here are some of the main ones we have noted to join those already making an impact; co-bots, AI integration, mobile autonomous robots, cloud robotics and the rise of Robotics as a Service (RaaS).

The year of the legged robot

2019 is forecast to be the year that commercial class legged robots break out of the research/pilot stage and walk their way into mainstream availability. At least two companies have already confirmed that their bipedal and quadruped designs respectively have entered pre-production and are being prepared for larger scale manufacture and general sale in 2019.

Designers have been working on legged robots because the wider environment in which we work is simply not suited to robots with wheels. This is particularly true outdoors. Rough or deep going, ditches, slopes, stairs, curbs and steps can all pose major obstacles to a wheeled robot, where one with legs is able to cope, if only by simply stepping over the obstruction in its path.

This is a development that is clearly of value to the agricultural market, where staff shortages are causing problems for fruit harvests in particular. Whilst the first ‘walking’ robots are likely to be very expensive, they look set to be one of the major sector stories of the 12 months to come and we could expect them to develop and change rapidly in just that period.

More robotics courses and associated training opportunities

2018 saw the introduction of the first equivalent to a UK A level (level 3) for the robotics industry. The new EAL qualification fills a gap that previously existed for students below university age looking to specialise in the sector. Soon afterwards the EEF introduced a new training course which enables students to complete this EAL robotics course in 8 weeks of intensive study at EEF’s Advanced Technology Training Centre in Birmingham.

This change in the UK, in terms of type and availability of course, looks to be only the start of a global movement. The increasing adoption of industrial robots in high profile, mainstream industries is encouraging more students around the world to pursue studies in robotic engineering. Demand for such courses is likely to be strong and sustained in both advanced and emerging economies, throughout 2019 and beyond.

As well as more courses based around general robotics themes, there is likely to be a visible shift towards specialised education and training offers in related, but highly specific areas including (but not limited to); microcontrollers, unified robotics, industrial robotics, computer science, coding, programming and other associated fields. All will be driven by this rising demand for automated and tech driven courses at all levels, not just university and beyond.

A changed jobs market

As we could predict given the rise in students turning to robotics as their future career and the expected growth in courses catering to them, the transformation in the jobs market is accelerating and we will be seeing far more opportunities for those with relevant knowledge.

2019 has been noted as a significant year in industry forecasts, as this is the year that the relatively new role of Chief Robotics Officer (CRO) is expected to become most apparent in bigger industries. Experts at IDC predicted that 30% of leading organisations would have implemented a chief robotics officer role and/or defined a robotics-specific function within the business by this year. The development is forecast to be particularly focused among large enterprises in supply-chain industries, such as logistics and manufacturing, with 10% expected to have a CRO in position to oversee the blending of human and robotic workers.

During 2019 the most skilled individuals in the robotics field will prosper, as the continued focus on establishing and/or improving the robotics function will allow them to command high salaries; the average pay increase by 2020 is expected to be around 60%. But while some will clearly benefit, there will be a less positive side effect on a wider scale. During 2019 it could become increasingly evident that there is a lack of appropriately skilled workers to fit many of the jobs that are being created, meaning that 35% of robotics roles will probably be unfilled over the 12 months due to a lack of suitable candidates for the posts.

It is clear that the robotics industry will face its own distinct recruitment challenges and it appears inevitable that the abilities of the work force will take time to catch up with demand, despite the aforementioned increase in available education and training opportunities. After all, however soon they are offered, there will still be time taken to complete them.

Availability and sophistication of customised robots

Despite the initial costs to be incurred in the deployment of industrial robots, companies across the globe are increasingly adopting robots and incorporating them in their conventional hardware systems. This is being made possible largely thanks to the continued evolution of tailor-made or fully customisable robots which can be perfectly adapted to fit specific settings and needs.

Back in the summer of 2017, a US-based firm announced its intent to produce a simple robotic kit that could be easily customised by the buyer. Now in 2018, the company provides several such kits which provide a basic structure of commonly used industrial robots like a gripping arm. They are not alone and other companies are also seeking to make robotics easier and cheaper to introduce with their adaptable and flexible robotic designs, including UK based firm Automata.

In 2019 we might expect highly customisable robot kits like these to increase in availability and advance in sophistication and complexity, providing an ideal starting point and route into robotics for many SMEs with limited budgets. Such initiatives by robotics companies are further expected to dominate the global smart robots market growth during the year.

Increasing commercial application of drones

Flying robots - drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – are gaining traction and popularity across industries and the detailed aerial data they can provide is being increasingly utilised by the construction, agriculture and mining industries. In the US alone the number of commercial drones in operation is expected to exceed 200,000 units in 2019. Globally, the commercial drones market is projected to reach a value of $10,738 million by 2022, so current growth estimates place it as set to readily exceed 5 million during 2019.

Safety concerns and a lack of legislation has long been an issue for the fluent growth in drone usage. We need only look at the much publicised problems caused at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports by drones around the festive period to see how much disruption can arise from careless operation.

Plans are that 2019 will also see the first standards for safe drone operation, finalised by the International Organization for Standardisation (IOS), adopted. If, as is hoped, these are generally accepted, such guidance may open the door for more widespread use of drone technology.

One long awaited drone project already set for launch in 2019 is the drone delivery service. One scheme is planned for Australia in which small packages will be home delivered to premises local to Canberra. There is also a testing phase scheduled for the coming spring in Finland, which will first operate in Helsinki.

These are only a handful of likely developments in the robotics industry for 2019 and the following years. As part of an exciting, constantly changing sector, we are as excited as our peers to see how the year unfolds.

John Toal is Director of Business Development at Tharsus