Thursday, August 27, 2015

Six Recent Trends in Robotics and their Implications

There are signs all around us indicating that the field of robotics is going through a major transformation. Robots are getting significant coverage in the media. Many big companies that have virtually nothing to do with robotics are suddenly on the buying spree to acquire robotics companies. Countries that were not on anyone’s radar screen just few years ago are emerging as major players in the robotics arena. Many designs and operational constraints associated with robots are being obliterated by the use of clouds and social media. Costs are falling rapidly, enabling new applications. The notion of what was considered a robot is changing fast. Most people now agree that drones are robots. We seem to be on the verge of something big that can hopefully impact our lives in a positive way. 

This post lists six main trends and discusses their implications. 

1. Commercial Investments: Recently the commercial sector has made significant investments in robotics. Google has bought several robotics companies. Amazon has bought Kiva Systems and morphed it into Amazon Robotics. Qualcomm has also made investments in robotics. Even venture capitalists are interested in funding robotics companies. Hopefully, these will lead to the adoption of robotics in new applications and accelerate the technology developments.

2. Emergence of New International Players: Traditionally robotics advances mostly came from Japan, the US, and a few European countries. The field is expanding and new international players are emerging. China is making significant investments in robotics. Chinese manufacturers are currently leading the world in terms of procurement of new industrial robots. They are also developing their own low-cost industrial robots. The largest commercial drone maker DJI is from China. South Korea leads the world in terms of robots deployed per 10,000 workers. Recently, South Koreans won the DARPA robotics challenge by beating teams from the US and Japan. The globalization of robotics is expected to create new opportunities and challenge the leadership of the traditional players.

3. Reduction in Hardware Costs: The cost of industrial robots and drones has been declining in the commercial sector. This is expected to enable deployment of robots and drones in new applications. The agricultural sector is being projected as a major new market for robots and drones.

4. Popularity of Drones in Civilian Sector: The use of drones in the civilian sector both domestically and internationally is expected to grow at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, these robots have major vulnerability from the cyber security perspective. Recent examples of hacking of cars illustrate the vulnerability of these vehicles to cyber-attacks. New cyber-security technologies are needed to deal with attacks that can commandeer vehicles and cause physical damage. A serious incident in this area can influence public opinion and cause a major setback for this emerging field.

5. Cloud Robotics: Robots can leverage clouds to do massive data processing and exchange information with other robots in real time. Clouds are freeing robots from computing constraints and giving robots “big enough brains” to deal with challenging situations. Advances in big data are also being embraced by the robotics community to deal with the massive data generated by sensor-rich robots.

6. Leveraging Social Media Data: Robots now have access to data on social media. They can mine data (e.g., images) on social media to gain new “perception” capabilities that can in turn expand their ability to “understand” the environment. Social media can also be used to crowd source demonstrations for helping robots acquire new skills.