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In late 2013, a significant event changed the state of the entire robotics industry. That was when Google opened up its robotics division and acquired a series of robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics (the two companies have since parted ways).
“Every investor started looking at robotics and thinking if Google is doing this huge investment there is something going on,” Fady Saad, co-founder of MassRobotics, a Boston-based non-profit devoted to escalating and incubating robotics technologies, said. And though Google's larger robotics strategy is still somewhat of a mystery, Saad said the founding of Google's robotics division, “triggered a whole chain reaction around robotics.”
Speaking at the 2019 Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in Boston, Saad identified four key verticals that have demonstrated a solid adoption of robotics and have been leading the way in the advancement and proliferation of robotics technology:
It should come as little surprise that the advanced manufacturing space is leading the way in robotics. “It's very easy for manufacturing companies to continue to adopt more robotics because they were already utilizing automation,” Saad said. He also cited growing use of collaborative robots (or cobots) as well as the emergence of metal 3D printing as key drivers behind advanced manufacturing's continued leadership in robotics.
2.)Logistics and Supply Chain
For better or worse, “there are some very interesting activities around automating warehouses and logistics,” Saad told the ESC audience. Arguably the best-known of the companies in this space is Kiva Systems, a maker of automated robots for warehouses. Kiva was eventually acquired by Amazon and its machines now make up the entirety of the robotic workforce in Amazon's fulfillment centers.
Saad said Amazon's acquisition of Kiva however left a void in the warehouse robotics space. “No other companies can use Kiva because it's part of Amazon,” he said. As such a number of companies including Locus Robotics, Fetch Robotics, and Vecna have sprung up in recent years to offer alternative solutions to a wider selection of customers.
Though construction is not the most obvious choice as a leading vertical for robotics, Saad said the industry has seen a lot of activity. “It's interesting because construction has not been disrupted in many years. And it's an industry experiencing labor shortage,” he said. “There's no way we can fill the [labor] gap without robotics.”
Autonomous heavy trucks, autonomous forklifts, and the use of drones to capture data about construction sites are already helping to fill in some of these gaps.
Saad also noted a more fantastical reason to expect construction to continue to lead in robotics adoption – space travel. “The other thing that will drive robotics in construction is construction in outer space,” he said. “Although this might sound sci-fi, NASA and other private space companies have been working on this for a long time. NASA has a startup competition around building structures on the moon using local materials and robots. And investment in these sorts of technologies will automatically impact construction on Earth.”
The medical device industry has probably undergone one of the most drastic shifts in terms of introducing robotics. The most notable example is the da Vinci surgical robot. But robots have been introduced into healthcare for a variety of other purposes, including telepresence, patient monitoring, and hospital logistics.
“I personally believe medical and surgical robots will scale a lot, Saad said, “Companies that have been focused on a specific surgery have a high likelihood to be successful, attract funding, and grow.”
Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.
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