BOSTON — Despite high consumer expectations, fears of job displacement, and numerous challenges for startups, the robotics industry is healthy and has a lot of growth potential, said Fady Saad, co-founder and director of partnerships at MassRobotics, at the Embedded Systems Conference here yesterday.
The ESC event is co-located with the BIOMEDevice Conference and Design & Manufacturing New England. Saad’s session on “Robotics Between Fantasy and Reality” was part of a series on the expo floor examining the state of robotics and dispelling common misconceptions.
MassRobotics is an organization dedicated to helping the robotics community by providing resources to innovative startups and promoting standards and collaboration in the Massachusetts robotics cluster, which includes about 150 companies. Saad also discussed MassRobotics’ partnerships and how it can help startups with The Robot Report.
Robotics developers might be discouraged by slowing funding of smaller robotics startups in the past year, but they and investors need to understand the robotics ecosystem, he said.
“There’s still plenty of money at the pre-seed stage and from Series C onwards, but venture capitalists are now more conscious of risk and the need for sizable investments at Series A,” he said. “We need investors who understand the technology and are willing to make those bets.”
Saad pointed to four application areas where investor and customer interest remain strong: advanced manufacturing, supply chain and logistics, construction, and healthcare.
Starting with industrial automation
In manufacturing, the rise of collaborative robot (cobot) arms and diverse end effectors promises to democratize automation by enabling small and midsize enterprises, particularly in New England, to more easily use robots, he said. Saad cited Universal Robots (owned by Teradyne) and several local gripper makers as leaders in cobots.
In warehousing, Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems in 2012 created a void that many other companies have moved to fill, including 6 River Systems, Fetch Robotics, Locus Robotics, and Vecna, said Saad. The expectation of rapid e-commerce order fulfillment is continuing to drive this market, as are advances in autonomous vehicles and drones for delivery, he added.
“2014 was a milestone year because Google bought six companies, including Boston Dynamics,” explained Saad. “It showed that big technologies companies saw robotics as something that could be profitable and not just research projects.”
Since then, Boston Dynamics was acquired by SoftBank in 2017, and it recently acquired Kinema Systems, which has developed systems using machine learning to handle boxes. Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot combines box handling with a two-wheeled base.
Kevin Blankespoor, vice president of engineering at Boston Dynamics, is delivering a keynote and demonstrating the SpotMini robot today at ESC. Boston Dynamics’ quadruped robot is coming to market this year.
Autonomous systems to build
For the $7 trillion construction industry, existing labor shortages mean that there’s no need for people to worry about being replaced by robots, Saad said. Autodesk’s BUILD Space at its technology centers in Boston and other cities offer workspace and equipment to researchers and startups designing new approaches to construction, he said.
Autonomous trucks and forklifts use similar technologies to self-driving cars, noted Saad, but the high cost of sensors and computing make them more likely in the short term because of economies of scale.
Companies such as DroneDeploy offer autonomous systems for surveying and monitoring for construction and infrastructure inspection, he said. In addition, robots could assemble prefabricated structures or even use create them from local materials on the moon or elsewhere in space. Saad mentioned NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, which could have benefits back on Earth.
Healthcare and beyond
“Healthcare and life science are a huge industry for robotics, including medical, surgical, bio labs, AI for drug discovery and diagnosis, pharmaceuticals, and logistics in hospitals,” Saad said. “Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci is a general surgical robot, but specialties such as knee surgery have a bigger opportunity to scale and are more likely to attract investment.”
Other areas to watch include agriculture, self-driving cars, and consumer robots — even though they have suffered recent setbacks with the shutdowns of Anki, Keeker, and Seven Dreamers Laboratories, he said.
One conference attendee asked about robots for patient intake, to which MassRobotics’ Saad responded that there is no dominant player yet in such service robots.
Another questioner asked about how artificial intelligence is changing robots. “AI plus dumb automation equals robotics,” he said.
MassRobotics partnerships provide value to startups
Silicon Valley may have more AI and software firms and investors than Boston, and Pittsburgh has good connections between university research and industry, Saad acknowledged. However, he said, the Massachusetts robotics cluster has diverse members, leading healthcare research institutions, commercially successful companies such as iRobot, and organized support for startups.
In addition to its co-working space in Boston and networking opportunities, MassRobotics offers startups access to its strategic partners, Saad explained. In the past year, it has partnered with Analog Devices, the Honda Xcelerator, Husqvarna, Lockheed Martin, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
These are more than just MassRobotics sponsors; they can also be potential customers, partners, or investors of MassRobotics members, said Saad.
“For instance, American Robotics was having difficulty raising funds, and we introduced them to Brain Robotics Capital to help bridge the gap,” he said. “They’re our second graduate. Autodyne, which is working on an air-traffic control for drones, recently won a contract with the U.S. Air Force and became our fourth graduate.”
As robotics startups scale up, they often move out of Boston into the suburbs, he observed. “That spill-out effect is a trend for policymakers and real estate observers to watch as they promote gateway cities,” Saad said.
Note: MassRobotics is a partner of WTWH Media, which produces The Robot Report and next month’s Robotics Summit & Expo in Boston. Saad will be part of the panel on “Robotics Clusters as Innovation and Business Engines.” Register now to attend.