Thanks to cheaper sensors, advanced navigation software and communications, and growing user awareness, deployments of mobile platforms grew last year. 2020 will be no different, as developers refine mobile robot applications in manufacturing, retail, customer service, and more.
Broadly speaking, autonomous mobile robots can carry out a variety of tasks with a minimum of human input, and many are designed to operate safely around people. Amazon’s Kiva robots are a well-known example. They play a crucial role in the e-commerce giant’s order-fulfillment process, zooming around company warehouses to find products and bringing them to the necessary drop-off stations.
Thanks to these market-defining robots, Amazon can fill more orders faster than ever before, with a remarkable degree of accuracy.
2020 is sure to be an incredible year for robotics adoption, especially for mobile platforms. Amazon will be using 120,000 robots by the end of this year, and the global market for mobile robots will surpass $3 billion, predicts Ash Sharma, research director at Interact Analysis.
Here are just some of the places where one can expect to see mobile robots in 2020.
1. Mobile robot applications in medical facilities
Nurses and other medical professionals spend a lot of time running back and forth around medical facilities, doing things like tending to patients, grabbing supplies, and answering doctors’ calls.
Mobile robots can alleviate much of this legwork. They could move patients, gather and transport supplies, assist with surgical procedures, and even disinfect rooms. Robots could reduce the amount of tedious tasks, reduce workplace strain and injuries, and ensure more consistent quality of care.
For instance, the Texas Medical Research Innovation Institute in Houston has tested ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot as a roving laboratory technician. The two-armed mobile robot can carry out tasks like pipetting liquids, sorting test tubes and carrying equipment.
According to ABB’s performance data, YuMi can help speed up hospital and research lab operations by as much as 50%, working a full 24 hours a day.
Not only can mobile robots accelerate healthcare operations, but they could pave the way for genuinely continuous, all-hour coverage. Nurses and doctors need to rest, but mobile robots do not.
2. Hospitality and customer service
While chatbots and software-based communication tools have been a staple of the hospitality and retail industries for years now, the technology has leaped into more physical forms. From Japan’s robot-staffed hotel to Rollbot, which can bring guests a roll of toilet paper, mobile robot applications promise to improve customer experiences.
With shortages of personnel, such robots can help attend to customer needs. Imagine robotic bellhops that can bring your luggage to your room, round-the-clock room service (perhaps supplied by a robotic kitchen), or autonomous shopping carts that will drive themselves around a store.
For another real-world example, Travelmate has created a robot suitcase that will follow on your heels, allowing for hands-free travel experiences.
At CES 2020, Ubtech’s Cruzr service robot was among the many designed for customer service robot applications.
3. Mobile robot applications in agriculture
In the past year, farmers and agribusinesses have started turning to mobile robots to maintain, measure, and harvest fresh produce, among many other applications.
Cambridge Consultants’ Mamut autonomous robot is one such machine, designed to explore active fields and capture useful data, which can help improve crop yield. Because the data collection process is fully automated, it eliminates the need for farmers and crews to pore over fields.
Mamut is more useful than drones because it’s ground-based for greater endurance, and it can collect more information.
Whether on their own, as enhancements to existing equipment, or in combination with aerial drones, mobile agriculture robots can help handle pest infestations, measure soil quality and pesticides, and harvest fruits and vegetables.
4. Warehousing and order fulfillment
From the factory to order delivery, many links in supply chains are being automated. After Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, many other robots offer to serve warehouses and order-fulfillment businesses. They include 6 River Systems’ Chuck, Locus Robotics’ LocusBots, Swisslog’s CarryPick, and Hitachi’s Racrew.
From mobile carts that accompany human pickers to more autonomous systems that move around warehouses on their own, there is an incredible variety of mobile robots in supply chain and logistics today.
In addition to retailers such as Best Buy, Shopify, and Walmart gaining greater efficiency and visibility into their operations, customers can also reap the benefits of robotics. They include shorter e-commerce order fulfillment, more accurate picking, and possibly even decreased shipping prices.
5. Package delivery
For a couple of years now, companies such as Alphabet, Amazon, FedEx, and UPS have been working on drones for local package deliveries. Safety and regulatory concerns, a variety of competing alternatives, and technical challenges have slowed progress.
Still, mobile robots and drones could not only speed up delivery times, but they could also reduce the environmental impact of the many trucks on the road.
For instance, Amazon has unleashed a small army of wheel-based delivery robots called Amazon Scout. It’s not a stretch to predict that there will be much more of this over the coming year, particularly from some of the other companies in the shipping field.
FedEx already has an autonomous delivery robot in use, and it first appeared in the summer of 2019. While UPS has not yet followed suit, other companies have, including Starship Technologies, grocery brand Kroger, General Motors, and DoorDash’s Nuro.
6. Mobile robots for education
A wide variety of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) kits are intended to inspire young people (and adults) and help them learn how to code.
Ozobot, for example, is designed for use in educational environments, aimed at teachers and students alike. The robot will react to colors and lines drawn on a tablet, paper, or even custom surfaces. It can also play games with users, many of which explore the concepts above.
As technology has become an incredibly vital part of modern life, many more educational applications will appear over the coming year.
8. Disaster recovery and emergency response
Australia’s massive fires are just the latest disaster to remind us of the need for societal resilience and the possibilities for automated threat response. Mobile robots can enter spaces the average human cannot, as well as endure direct exposure to hazardous chemicals, heat and flames, and even widespread debris. Robotics is ideally suited for disaster recovery and emergency rescue situations.
From underwater recovery and firefighting to ambulatory operations — much like Zebro can do — autonomous robots could swarm into the field to save human lives. The deployment of mobile robots in 2020 could enhance human survivability.
Designing for mobile robot applications in 2020
Based on the sheer number of applications that currently exist for mobile robots, the future is bright. While many mobile robot applications share the same bases, robotics developers should be aware of each one’s needs for precision and safety, the degree of uncertainty in its environment, and intended payloads and interoperability.