The Next Silicon Valley

Robotics innovation goes mobile, moves beyond manufacturing

Science fiction a few years ago might have portrayed the future with robots as butlers, or there were movies showing how robots took over the world. To date the most widespread and practical use of robots is in industrial environments, especially robot arms used within manufacturing processes. Now however, the reality of intelligent robots is probably much closer, judging by the many prototypes and ideas and announcements coming in already at the beginning of 2016 – from companion robots, to home butlers with varying levels of service and artificial intelligence.  Robotics innovation is not only moving beyond manufacturing, but it is also going mobile.

Innovation in robots for elderly care

Where we are most likely to see their accelerated development though is probably for care of elderly people in their own homes. One such project has just received UK£2 million in funding from the UK innovation funding agency Innovate UK, for a consortium of leading researchers, care providers and robotics experts to develop CHIRON (‘care at home using intelligent robotic omni-functional nodes’), a modular robotic solution for the home to revolutionize long-term care by giving people the choice to stay independent in their own homes as they age.

This kind of innovation research is necessary because of increasing numbers of older adults needing assistance in later life – the challenge for governments and society is how to best provide and maintain high quality support, and ensure that people can stay integrated and valued members of their communities. It is thought that by 2065, 26 percent of the population of England and Wales would be more than 65 years old, up from 18 percent today.

The CHIRON project is developing a connected system of modular robotic components, which can be adapted to different assistive tasks. CHIRON’s various components will be designed to be mixed and matched. A set of intelligent modular robotic systems, located in multiple positions around the home, CHIRON could help with personal hygiene tasks in the morning, help get ready for the day and even support a person in preparing their favourite meal in the kitchen.

Hence it enables people using CHIRON to undertake a wide range of domestic and self-care tasks independently, which for some people could mean that their carer would then have more time to spend providing valuable social companionship. The project will create a prototype that will lead to the development of a commercially viable product.

Wider trends will enable more widespread robotics

Societal megatrends will play into robotics even further, and according to a research report on ‘Robotics 2016-2026’ from IDTechEx, the worldwide market for robots is expected to reach over US$120 billion over the next 10 years.  The ageing population will benefit not only from surgical robots, lab robots for medicine and robotically-manufactured replacement bionic parts but also service robots designed to help the elderly at home. Everyone will benefit from personal robots that vacuum the house, mow the lawn, clean the pool and automate other mundane tasks such as cleaning the BBQ grill.

Many robots will serve multiple functions. Internet-enabled robotic vacuum cleaners for the home are already being empowered with security responsibilities as they are able to photograph unusual changes in the home, such as an intruder, and send the images to the home owner. All of these sectors in robotics will grow to overshadow traditional industrial robot arms.

This is a far cry from the first industrial robot, Unimate, which went into operation at a General Motors plant in 1961. Over the next few decades the use of industrial robot arms in the automotive industry matured. More recently, the use of industrial robot arms in the cleanroom environments of the semiconductor and electronics industries also matured. The market for such traditional industrial robots is now worth around $11bn and continues to grow slowly. The technology is largely unchanged with modern industrial robot arms generally employing minimal sensors and no real intelligence.

A variety of independent technological advances in batteries, power electronics, motors, sensors, processors, artificial intelligence and other fields are now creating an environment where robotics can finally surge ahead in many different ways, solving a wide variety of problems that traditional industrial robots could not possibly have solved.

Mobile robotics will surge

The single biggest trend will be mobile robotics. Over the next decade the statically-mounted robots of today will become a minority as next generation robots travel across the ground, in the air and even across oceans and in space. Autonomous unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) will transfer goods not only within warehouses but down highways alongside conventional passenger vehicles and around mines and quarries with only minimal human intervention as well as harvesting crops and mowing our lawns.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will bring internet access to millions of people in remote locations, bring emergency medical attention to those in need and monitor and dust our crops. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) will be used to mine the ocean floors for precious minerals and coast guards around the world will employ autonomous robotic lifeboats for search and rescue.

Although mobile robots will be the single biggest trend, static robots will still continue to evolve. Surgical robots have already made inroads in some specific laparoscopic procedures but many companies are bringing more surgical robots to market for different kinds of operations.

The worldwide push for STEM education has robotics as a core topic. What were expensive high-end machines a few decades ago will be modularized into interoperable parts (joints, end effectors and so on) and commoditized as they are mass produced cheaply in East Asia. In conjunction with the continued growth in the maker movement, this will make robotics affordable for everyone, facilitating the teaching of robotics in schools and the development of next-generation robots by hobbyists.

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