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Robots All Around

By 2018, sales of service robots for personal and domestic use will reach 35 million units, according to the International Robotics Federation.

First: what is a robot? 

  • Is it a toy or entertainment device that you control via apps from your smartphone?

  • Is it a special purpose device to clean a grill, vacuum a floor and serve as an assistive device?

  • Is it a social robot that provides companionship and interacts with people, possible in a humanoid form that “walks” and “talks” as it befriends you?

  • Is it a specialized device, such as a smart glove that can handle things that you can’t touch?

  • Is it a drone or smart car that is programmed to move people and products?

  • Is it an industrial device that assembles products, conducts medical procedures or performs in-store retail or warehouse functions?

Next: what's all the excitement about?

  • Predictions of 35 million units of “service robots” to be sold in the next three years.

  • It will be a $7.6 billion market by 2018 for entertainment and leisure robots.

  • Amazon and Lowe’s are on the leading edge of retailers deploying robots.

“Robots are going to be as popular as cars, machines and airplanes,” predicts Alibaba Group Chairman Jack Ma. “Robots will be part of the family,” adds the chairman of China’s vast Internet empire citing the invasion of social robots. With names such as Buddy, Pepper and Jibo, the devices are moving from “novelty” to “normal”—although the robotics category as a whole is still fragmented and diverse.

While humanoid social robots attract attention, the even larger array of specialized devices dedicated to a narrow range of functions constitute the most activity right now. A major challenge is identifying the ways in which devices relate to humans.

The Grillbot grill-cleaning robot

“It’s a very natural interaction,” says Double Robotics CEO and Co-founder David Cann, describing his company’s telepresence-on-wheels robot that allows a person to be in two places at once. Interviewed via his Double robot at a trade show in Dublin, Ireland, in November, as he sat in his office in California, Cann explained, “I can drive around. Now you can be another person in the meeting rather than simply a face on a flat-screen.” The Double (an iPad atop a stick atop a wheeled base, all remotely controlled) is being tested in retail stores for customer interaction as well as in schools and hospitals.

Like the 20 other exhibitors in the Robotics Marketplace at CES 2016, Double Robotics is pursuing a niche that is part of the coming decade’s boom in digital life. “Pepper,” a four-foot tall humanoid social robot that can show emotions, sold out its production of 1,000 units per month within the first minute that they were offered in September.

The device created for SoftBank Mobile by Aldebaran (SoftBank Robotics Corp.) was initially available only in Japan, but its CES presence underscores its global expansion. Pepper can understand “70 to 80 percent of spontaneous conversations,” the company says.

Social robots, often priced at less than $1,000, are emerging worldwide. Blue Frog Robotics in France is selling “Buddy” as a companion. Jibo, one of Indiegogo’s most successful crowd-funding projects two years ago (raising $3.7 million), can recognize people.

On the other hand, Amaryllo International, a Dutch home security firm, is concentrating on single-purpose robotic devices. Its iCamPro Deluxe “intelligent auto-tracking camera” represents the focused applications of some robots. The company has won CES Innovation awards for two consecutive years.

Similarly, the single purpose Grillbot includes high-powered motors, rugged wire brushes, and a custom microprocessor chip that lets it scrub a grill in about 10 minutes. The company sold more than 65,000 units in its first year and plans to add five new features to improve the cleaning process.

Winbot does windows. Deebot does floors. Atmobot is a mobile air purification robot. All of them come from Ecovacs Robotics, an Ohio company that distributes devices through big box chains. The outlook for the “cleaning robot market” looks good, according to a global study, published in November that foresees a $2.5 billion category by 2020. That represents a 15.3 percent compound annual growth rate from 2015 to 2020.

Global Expansion

The International Robotics Federation (IFR) says that the automotive and electronics industries are the primary drivers of the robotics boom. IFR’s latest analysis points out five countries (China, Japan, the U.S., Korea and Germany in that order) account for about 70 of the global robot supply.

By 2018, sales of service robots for personal and domestic use will reach 35 million units, according to IFR’s stats. By then, China will account for more than one-third of the industrial robots installed worldwide. The annual supply of industrial robots in China has jumped by nearly 60 percent in the past five years compared to 11 percent growth in the U.S.

Adelbaran NAO

IFR confirmed that the primary robotic applications are for vacuum and floor cleaning, lawn mowing, entertainment and leisure robots. But IFR also ranks robots for elderly and handicap assistance at the top of its list.

“Handicap assistance robots have taken off,” says IFR, which foresees “rapid longer-term growth,” based on the increased need to care for disabled persons, including elderly users. It cites the value of exoskeletons for rehabilitation as well as for ergonomic support that can reduce the stresses of carrying loads.

Developments including ideas that involve technology transfer play a significant role in robot development. For example, a NASA “Robonaut” project has been developing an “assistant for astronauts” that can handle dull, dangerous and dirty tasks. One result is leading toward a “RoboGlove,” a smart device that knows how to recognize when a human extends his hand or arm toward it. The RoboGlove (and the system to which it is attached) will know whether to receive an item from the human, hand something over to the person or perform some other function. In tests the RoboGlove used baby wipes to clean handrails and caught a spinning roll of duct tape. Those are dexterity tasks that could be adapted to assistive devices.

A recent Georgia Institute of Technology study found that a “surprising number” of seniors (aged 63 to 93 years) would prefer to have a robotic assistant for household tasks rather than a human helper. Caring for seniors is one of the motivations for the aggressive robot activity in Japan, where the government, along with manufacturers such as Toyota, have been backing the “Human Support Robot” program since 2012. One project has developed a compact maneuverable robot with folding arms that can pick up objects from the floor, bring items down from shelves and perform an array of other tasks.

“This will allow for genuine human interaction as the HSR goes about its work,” says Toyota. Separately Sumitomo has developed Robear, an experimental nursing care robot that can lift a patient from a bed into a wheelchair and provide assistance for those who can walk.

Gary Arlen