For the past thirty years, the robotics industry has been defined by a large number of providers building similar products with proprietary operating systems, controllers, and software to perform largely similar tasks. This applies particularly to mobile robotics.
This might be called the Artisanal Age of robotics given the significant challenges faced in developing robots for different use cases. But as technology has matured and deployments have become more common, hardware costs have gone down, and the corresponding drop in sensor prices has made it less difficult to build sophisticated mobile robots at scale.
The value is now shifting to the middleware and software that can power these robots and develop their value-added services. Ultimately, these companies will extend their offerings beyond different hardware and will have a two-fold effect on the robotics industry:
1. Companies will harmonize and establish interoperability and standards that will greatly expand the capacity of end users to adopt robots.
2. Companies will shift value from the ability to build robots to the ability to deploy solutions at scale, with value concentrated in management, analytics, operations, and monitoring. Their success or failure will depend more on integrating multiple robots and use cases (drones, unmanned ground systems, underwater vehicles etc.) with more general Internet of Things (IoT) offerings like smart wearables, connected infrastructure, and the smart workforce.
These companies are not developing vertical innovation that greatly expands the capabilities of one robot. Advancements in mobile manipulation, improved mechatronics, flexibility, and so on will still be spearheaded by individual manufacturers, universities, and government departments. The value for these companies is the economies of scale they will reap as they spread. In turn, the wider distribution of cloud computing and value-added services will be a broad-based force multiplier for robotics. In such an ecosystem, there are four key types of players:
Cloud Service Providers: These platforms are offering general purposes services, software as a service (SaaS), and the ability to scale operations effectively. Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) RoboMaker are the leaders in this space.
Robotics Software Platforms: A robotics platform that focuses on management, analytics, monitoring, and so on. They are often cloud-connected and can be plugged into more comprehensive OS solutions.
Robotics Manufacturers: Many of these companies are developing in-house software for their systems. They are limited by their own hardware.
Autonomy Solution Providers (ASPs): ASPs offer fairly comprehensive technology stacks that provide all the traits of autonomy to robots, standard vehicles and equipment. This category includes companies like Brain Corp, BlueBotics, and Autonomous Solutions Inc.
ASPs represent an increasingly important part of the commercial robotics market as the dividends of improved mobility-related technologies proliferates. They are in a particularly strong position because they sit at the intersection of hardware development, software, and implementation. ASPs are better attuned to the specific expertise of robotics design and development and have experience in integrating robots into workspaces. In many cases, they will work with systems integrators and distributors to expand their operations and are, thus, closer to the traditional robotics industry than cloud service providers and software platforms.
A new generation of companies is taking advantage of this space and trying to be even more flexible than the current leaders. Siera AI, formerly known as Stocked Robotics and one of The Robot Report‘s 10 Robotics Startups to Watch in 2019, retrofits standard vehicles and turns them into autonomous machines. The company is contemplating making the hardware free and relying on revenue from its analytics and value-added services.
Following Android’s footsteps
The future of robotics has often been compared to the development of smartphones. That is tempting given the differing philosophies of the two primary Operating System (OS) providers in the mobile space – Apple iOS and Google Android. Apple represents the far end of the closed proprietary system. They do not have open-source offerings and specifically tailor the OS to its own hardware. As a result, its potential for short-term improvements and continual crowd-sourced updates is limited, but this is offset by improvements in performance through optimization.
On the other side is Google Android, which relies heavily on Linux Kernel. With certain licensing caveats, it is open to a wide range of hardware vendors and, therefore, has the benefits associated with a more permissive and license-based system. While the core OS for Android is free for all phone manufacturers to deploy, they have to enter a licensing agreement with Google to have access to Google services, such as Google Maps and other applications.
Budding Autonomy Solution Providers are definitely trying to follow the route showcased by Android, where a Linux-based system may have some open-source features but where the most valuable offerings, like path-planning, navigation and apps, are not. The shipments for Android-enabled phones from Samsung, LG, Google, and Huawei exceed Apple’s shipments by an enormous order of magnitude.
What is most likely is that professionalized versions of Robotic Operating System (ROS) will be leased at an increasing rate, serving a role analogous to Android for smart devices. Closed proprietary OSs will do very well for specific robotic applications, maybe for piece picking or for mobile manipulation, but will not represent the majority of the market. Vendors like Brain Corp, the developers of ROS-based proprietary Brain OS, will form the bulwark of the future mobile robotics landscape.
Division of labor via the development of ROS-based ASPs offering common navigation solutions will be supplemented by specialization through the development of best-in-class software and DevOps tools that focus on specific use cases like monitoring, diagnostics, or fleet management.
What now needs consideration is how and where the technology stack gets monetized. Just providing navigation, localization or mapping is not particularly profitable, even at scale. It only provides a strong market position from which to build more valuable services. Indeed, even developing the ability for the robot to locate is one of the least valuable and most difficult parts of the engineering process for any robotics company. The fact this had to be repeated ad nauseum in the development of individual robotic systems could be viewed as a bad opportunity cost; but with this problem largely solved, attention will move up the technology stack towards operations, maintenance and analytics.
This opens up the field for cloud service providers and software providers. Autonomy Solution Providers, which also have to provide the middleware and autonomy enablement, are going to have to partner with, acquire, and offer Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for bespoke solutions that the customer will want.
Mobile Robotics Investments & Acquisitions
|6 River Systems||Shopify||450 (acquisition)||The Robot Report Coverage|
|Geek+||GGV Capital||150||The Robot Report Coverage|
|AutoGuide Mobile Robots||Teradyne||58 (acquisition)||The Robot Report Coverage|
|Fetch Robotics||Fort Ross Ventures||46||The Robot Report Coverage|
|Simbe Robotics||Venrock||26||The Robot Report Coverage|
Defining the new age of robotics
This is the beginning of a sea change in robotics, amounting to a fundamental division of labor that will open up the market to diversification. An example is the cloud robotics vendor InOrbit, which provides development operations for robotics deployments and specializes in visualization, fleet management, data collection, and aggregation. They work with ASPs like Brain Corp and offer some the highest value services by providing a common platform for heterogenous fleets. Given the need for scalability, many robots of differing types will develop across the workspace and require the deployment of superior software services to manage.
Ultimately, the new age of robotics will be defined by four major phases over the next decade:
1. The success of a few ROS-influenced OSs that can automate different hardware and provide general solutions to common problems, like navigation, odometry, and so on. Robotics companies will try to develop ASP-like capability by licensing their software.
2. The proliferation of software vendors that build best-in-class solutions to plug into OSs. These players will be both competitive and complimentary to ASPs and will be based on partnerships and acquisitions.
3. Specialization in both software and hardware, particularly for hard use cases like quadrupeds, underwater drones, and mobile manipulation.
4. Reactive consolidation being pushed by cloud service providers. There will also be attempts by autonomous car developers like Cruise and Nuro AI to develop cross-industry solutions for robots.
As Autonomy Solution Providers move forward and preempt these developments, they are in a very strong position to develop as the central family of platforms for the mobile robotics ecosystem.