Robots were once considered capable of handling only the simplest repetitive tasks, but in the past several years, improvements in sensors, motion control, and machine learning have made robots and cognitive systems ever more flexible. They are already helping human users in manufacturing, precision agriculture, and disaster recovery.
In addition to hardware and software improvements, automation is benefiting from the ability to collect, analyze, and share big data through cloud computing and the Internet of Things.
Even in use cases where people have been reluctant to adopt new tools because of regulatory hurdles or concerns about the amount of technical training required, such as among some physicians, robotics’ potential is becoming obvious. Designers and developers of robots and related technologies should be aware of these opportunities and build with different user communities in mind. Here are six industries most likely to increase their adoption of robots in the next five years.
1. Medical and healthcare
Robots are already assisting surgeons around the world. In fact, BIS Research has pointed out that surgical systems retain the highest share of the medical robotics market. Other types of robots in healthcare include systems for pharmaceuticals testing and dispensing, materials handling and disinfecting in hospitals, therapeutic and wearable devices, and robots and AI for diagnosis.
Surgical robots can improve the accuracy of movements, reduce potential errors, and reduce recovery times and the risk of complications. However, the technology is being applied to a relatively limited set of procedures — abdominal, cardiac, orthopedic, spinal, and some neurosurgical.
The engineers developing and supporting surgical robots need to understand the specific application. For instance, consider a device to enable a surgeon to remotely make minimally invasive incisions. It doesn’t replace the doctor, but handles precise movements to relieve the cognitive load.
Not only must developers build and test the software, but they also need to create the necessary software for the desired levels of precision and autonomy. What controls and user interface are needed? What network infrastructure must one have for a reliable connection and real-time adjustments?
Not only should roboticists work closely with doctors, but they should also factor in interoperability and the intended use for the surgical system as the market grows.
Automation has been part of agriculture for many years, but it’s now evolving and growing, thanks to precision agriculture using drones and AI data analytics, as well as continuing labor shortages, particularly for fruit picking. The hardware engineers and software developers who take advantage of these trends driving field robotics will be successful.
The number of agricultural robots shipping will reach 727,000 units per year by 2025, predicts Tractica Research.
Robots are already helping milk cows, plant and monitor crops, and manage harvests. The Internet of Things (IoT) is not limited to factories and warehouses, as robots, autonomous vehicles such as tractors, and drones must be reliable, affordable, and easy to use and upgrade.
3. Consumer and household
Smart speakers, smart vacuums, and smart homes are just the beginning of automation for consumers. Connectivity to the Web and other devices, natural-language interfaces, and an ecosystem of useful applications are key enabling technologies.
Although social robots have had problems competing with existing systems such as smartphones or Amazon Echo and Google Home, several companies are working on domestic robots. Such robots could do more than answer queries, with programming to allow people to age in place, educate children, and actually interact with their environments and users to prepare meals or clean.
As with any other application, consumer-focused robotics will need software, mapping and connectivity, and data platforms to drive their operation. It’s all in the code, as they say. It will be up to developers to find unique approaches to common household chores.
Entertainment is yet another aspect of consumer robots, some of which will likely have humanoid limbs made possible through pneumatic systems. Imagine an android assistant that can carry objects and would be useful just about anywhere.
4. Automotive and transportation
Despite safety setbacks, ongoing design challenges, and public skepticism, self-driving cars, trucks, and buses are on their way, as both major automakers and tech firms invest heavily and hire engineers away from other aspects of robotics. Beyond Tesla’s autonomous mode, robots are also useful for testing and manufacturing next-generation vehicles.
Yamaha’s MOTOBOT, for instance, is a humanoid robot that rides motorcycles and is expressly designed to collect real-time information about each experience. The data is then used to enhance and develop new vehicles. Self-driving fleet vehicles such as buses and trucks are more likely in the short term than affordable, individual passenger cars.
The sensors, AI processors, and other systems that will bring autonomous vehicles to the roads still need refinement, economies of scale, and standardization and regulatory compliance, guaranteeing demand for developers for years to come.
5. Emergency and first response
Mobile robots can be used in place of human first responders to sift through the wreckage after a hurricane, tornado, or other disaster. Drones can spot survivors after a flood or earthquake, or even navigate underneath a collapsed structure.
These are not unlike the robots used in military and law enforcement fields. They can either be autonomous and capable of acting without human input or controlled remotely via proprietary navigation systems. They can also actively fight fires, relay medical supplies, or help with cleanup.
In either case, developers will need to plan for every possible contingency which might mean spending some time out in the field to understand how these devices can aid people in disaster scenarios.
6. Military and law enforcement
As with some of the industries mentioned above, military and law enforcement authorities have also recognized the value of robotics. Adoption in this sector is likely to continue growing, as robots expand beyond those used for explosive ordnance removal and surveillance.
Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and many other companies all work on military-grade robots, unmanned systems, and AI that can help in active combat on land, in the air, and in the water. Small drones can be deployed alongside robots for intelligence gathering and situational awareness, which is also useful in law enforcement situations. And every offensive technology has a defensive counterpart.
Developer demand to increase
It’s easy to see from this list just how widespread the demand for advanced robotics really is. But to bring robotics, AI, and unmanned systems into fruition, entrepreneurs and engineers need to build out the foundational technologies. Each application requires a specific set of hardware, user interfaces, and software stack, especially as demand for autonomy grows. Naturally, it means robotics developers are in high demand, and that trend will continue far into the future.