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2020 has been a year unlike any other. If the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t enough, several other world-shifting events dominated headlines, including wildﬁres, an impeachment trial, a racial justice movement, and an unprecedented U.S. election. While most people are understandably eager to turn the page and hit the ground running in 2021, it’s important to recap the past year in robotics.
Of all that happened, much could have been overlooked. We excluded COVID-19 as a top story as we’ll be covering its impact on the industry elsewhere, but it was a factor in several of the following stories. Here are the 10 most popular non-COVID stories covered by The Robot Report in 2020.
10. iRobot delays robot lawn mower development
iRobot delayed the launch of its long-awaited Terra robot lawn mower. It made the announcement in April, putting the blame on COVID-19. In its Q1 2020 earnings call in April, iRobot said it “suspended our go-to-market plans associated with our Terra robot mower. Although we believe there is substantial long-term opportunity in the robot lawn care market, our decision to take our foot off the gas for Terra was based largely on the likelihood of significant delays to our 2020 commercial plans for Terra caused by COVID-19 combined with the overall intensity of ongoing technology investment that would be required over the coming quarters to continue advancing the product. It is simply the wrong time to launch this product.”
Later in the year, during its Q3 earnings call, iRobot said, “Our go-to-market plans to enter the robot mower market with Terra will remain on hold for the foreseeable future. To the extent we restart our efforts in this area, we will do so in stealth mode and will not be providing updates on a quarterly basis.”
There has been talk of an iRobot robot lawn mower since at least 2006, but the Roomba-like Terra was officially unveiled in January 2019. The U.S. robot lawn mower market is way behind other countries, including many in Europe, which the Associated Press reports has a $300 million robot lawn mower industry.
9. Analyst looks at Chinese robotics
China’s industrial automation and robotics market demonstrated significant strengths in 2020, according to international consultant Georg Stieler. But immature firms and trade conflicts with the U.S. still pose challenges.
Industrial robots were among China’s industries that performed better in the second quarter than in the same period of the previous year. Based on the evaluation of the sales figures of the 20 leading domestic and foreign manufacturers of industrial robots in China, the market grew by 3.8% from the beginning of April to the end of June.
Other segments with robust growth were automated guided vehicles (AGVs, +17%) and collaborative robots (+9%). They particularly benefited from resuming projects that had been halted during the outbreak. Sales of traditional multi-axis robots (-10%) and handling technology (-6%) continued to decline in the second quarter, mainly due to the persistently weak demand from the automotive sector.
At the present time, China can be seen as a bright spot in the global robotics market.
8. Former coal miners become robot techs
Robots are mistakenly too often viewed as a threat to the future of human jobs. But not at the eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute (eKAMI), which is using robotics to provide former coal miners with a second chance and a brighter future.
Started in 2017, eKAMI is helping former coal miners switch careers to mobile robot technicians. The program includes instruction in both technical and soft skills. Students train on the latest state-of-the-art CNC equipment, learning to program, set up, and operate machines that produce parts for various industries, including military and defense, robotics, aerospace, medical, and electronics. AutoGuide Mobile Robots, a Massachusetts-based developer of autonomous mobile robots, has hired 25-plus eKAMI graduates.
Later in 2020, eKAMI partnered with READY Robotics to train students how to program multiple types of robotic arms. eKAMI is a great example of the workforce development programs that are desperately needed to prepare U.S. workers for the future.
7. Walmart ends relationship with Bossa Nova Robotics
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, in early November abruptly ended its five-year partnership with Bossa Nova Robotics, a developer of autonomous mobile robots for taking shelf inventory. This was a significant reversal from plans announced in January to expand deployments of the robots from 500 to 1,000 stores.
Walmart “found different, sometimes simpler solutions that proved just as useful, said people familiar with the situation,” according to The Wall Street Journal. With fewer people shopping inside Walmart stores due to COVID-19, these solutions included using more human employees for inventory monitoring.
According to a source, the robots’ performance and changes in Walmart leadership were other factors. Walmart executives were concerned about how the robots affected the customer experience and about the ability to scale the technology to other stores, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Unfortunately, this is a cautionary tale of what can happen when working with major corporations. Bossa Nova put all of its eggs into the Walmart basket and had to lay off about 50% of its staff. The company has pivoted its business twice since being founded; let’s see if it can do it again.
Walmart continues to explore how robotics can enhance its business. Its Sam’s Club subsidiary is bringing Tennant’s floor-scrubbing robots to its 599 stores. It is also exploring how these robots could also perform inventory monitoring. In addition, Walmart recently announced a partnership with Cruise to test autonomous vehicle delivery in Scottsdale, Ariz.
6. Anki focused on security robotics before shutdown
In a perfect example of how difficult the consumer robotics business is, Anki shut down in 2019 after it raised more than $200 million and had $325 million in revenue since it was founded in 2010. Edtech startup Digital Dream Labs acquired Anki’s IP in late 2019, and some of Anki’s products could be on shelves again in time for the holiday season.
The Robot Report learned that prior to shutting down, Anki was developing two versions of Bingo, a security robot with a German shepherd-inspired design. There was a small consumer version called Mini Bingo for home-security applications and a more robust, rugged version for commercial and military security applications.
The consumer version was designed to roam around the house, go to recharge its battery, and then continue its patrol. If something was out of place, it would send you an alert. It would even bark like a real dog. Think of the Mini Bingo as a robotic guard dog. The larger model was about four-feet tall and had capabilities including thermal imaging, room scanning, mapping, facial recognition, and more.
Digital Dream Labs told The Robot Report it likely won’t pursue Bingo or Mini Bingo, especially since the larger version seems like “hardcore DARPA stuff.” The products also don’t align with Anki’s original vision, showing how a once-promising consumer robotics company lost its way.