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Service Robots and their Rapid Rise in Multiple Markets

by Adil Shafi , President, ADVENOVATION, Inc.
ADVENOVATION, Inc.

Industrial Robots and Service Robots Defined

Industrial robots are characterized by their use in factories.  Almost always they work in a fixed area or move about a linear axis or on a gantry structure; all of which are enclosed by a safety fence.  Industrial robots are defined by the International Federation of Robotics through an ISO 8373 document as: “An automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications. Reprogrammable: whose programmed motions or auxiliary functions may be changed without physical alterations; Multipurpose: capable of being adapted to a different application with physical alterations; Physical alterations: alteration of the mechanical structure or control system except for changes of programming cassettes, ROMs, etc. Axis: direction used to specify the robot motion in a linear or rotary mode.”

Service robots on the other hand are mobile, uncontained and extremely diverse. The International Federation of Robotics has a provisional definition for them: "A service robot is a robot which operates semi- or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well-being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations. With this definition, manipulating industrial robots could also be regarded as service robots, provided they are installed in non-manufacturing operations. Service robots may or may not be equipped with an arm structure as is the industrial robot. Often, but not always, the service robots are mobile. In some cases, service robots consist of a mobile platform on which one or several arms are attached and controlled in the same mode as the arms of the industrial robot. Because of their multitude of forms and structures as well as application areas, service robots are not easy to define."

Service Robots: The Upcoming Profound Impact on Human Life

The advent of service robots for personal human use is a profound new development in the 21st century. Like the industrial revolution, which began to power machinery, and electricity, which began to power devices for personal human use, there have begun, in the last 30 years, two new revolutions, namely computers and robots, to extend the mental (from computers) and physical (from robots) capabilities of human beings, and they are destined to become widespread and pervasive to human life on planet earth. Robots will, like computers before them, fulfill the quote from Henry Ford: “The true end of industry is to liberate mind and body from the drudgery of existence by filling the world with well-made, low-priced products.”  It is interesting to note that an analogy exists between the transition of mainframe computers to personal computers and between the transition of industrial robots to personal robots.  There are similarities in price and volume curves, third party development and a focus on commercially beneficial solutions; and like the personal computer revolution, the service robotics revolution is now well underway.

Rapid Rise : Opportunities and Challenges

The financial opportunities in these markets have already exceeded several billion dollars, and for components within them e.g., machine vision and mobile platforms in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet these markets are still in their infancy.  Entry points into these markets are accelerating from a variety of corners and initiatives in industry, government, academia, large corporations and small startups. There are ample opportunities to form partnerships and coordination amongst these various sectors; each of which brings with it its own strengths and needs to partner with another. Already, hundreds of organizations are involved within these efforts. The attraction for organizations in industry is to extend their expertise from factory applications to a more diverse set of markets that can deliver higher volumes in sales.  The attraction for government organizations is to strengthen their research and operations as well as provide dual use benefit, via participating organizations, in the commercial market.  The attraction for academia is to strengthen the quality and appeal, and thereby enrollment, for their technical programs while using their innovations in service robots to extend their financial strength through partnerships with organizations that need their high end intellectual property or technical expertise.  Collectively these interests form a confluence of mutual interest to further the field of service robotics and its widespread adoption.

As an example, machine vision and image processing products and technologies play essential roles for these robots, enabling them to image, store, and interpret data about the world around them, and perform actions based on this data. Traditionally, the robotics and machine vision industry has excelled at manufacturing, integrating and supporting solutions in factories in static, controlled environments.  Now, with the aid of 3D machine vision and sensor fusion, these capabilities can be extended to mobile, less controlled environments.  These are the opportunities and challenges on the road ahead.

Multiple Markets: Classification and Diversity

Researchers at the University of Toronto are using a single stereo camera for localization and mapping for a plant-exploring robot.Service robot markets can be classified in an extendable manner that guarantees future inclusion in an easy structure, even for applications that we may not have identified yet, in three categories: aerospace, land and water applications. This is so because these are the three major substances that surround our planet and will continue to embody the human experience for at least the next few centuries.  Within these three, the following twenty markets are emerging:

Aerospace
  1. Spacecraft e.g., to explore other planets and to collect samples for analysis
  2. Satellites e.g., for commissioning in orbit, work aboard stations and maintenance
  3. Aircraft e.g., for surveillance, strikes, operations support, cargo, and unmanned use
Land

  1. Defense e.g., for bomb threat disposal, combat and transport support, and law enforcement
  2. Farming e.g., for tree based fruit retrieval, weather adroit unmanned tractors, and farm work
  3. Wildlife e.g., for wildlife identification, tracking migration patterns, and zoo operations
  4. Food e.g., for dairy milking, meat tracking and processing, and poultry handling
  5. Transportation e.g., for assisted or autonomous driving, lane safety, clearance and security
  6. Outdoor Logistics e.g., for construction, demolition, maintenance, and use at gates and docks
  7. Office and Warehouse e.g., for mobile telepresence, safer forklifts, AGVs, and mobile ASRS
  8. Health : Care e.g., for logistical deliveries and tracking, help on wheelchairs, medical scanning
  9. Health : Rehabilitation e.g., for limb locomotive strength, balance, and post trauma retraining
  10. Health : Surgical e.g., for minimally invasive, precise operations with reduced adverse effects
  11. Entertainment e.g., for education, toys, kiosks, social help, coasters, concerts and filmmaking
  12. Home Convenience e.g., for cleaning indoors and outdoors, home chores, and tele shopping
PR2 robot from Willow Garage with integrated motion and vision.          da Vinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical

BigDog logistics robot from Boston Dynamics          Google autonomous car driving in the Bay area.

NAO research and education robot from Aldebaran.

Water
  1. Defense and Security e.g., for pirate patrol, ship to ship crane transfers, and threat control
  2. Research and Exploration e.g., for exploration in depth for long times, studies, fishing, salvage
  3. Preventive Maintenance e.g., for oil rigs, buoys, bridges, dams, pipes, tunnels and sewers
  4. Rescue and Recovery e.g., for spill containment and cleaning, search and rescue, DSRVs
  5. Entertainment e.g., for simulators, customized tours and submarine tourism
Service robots in the aerospace categories are the most sophisticated with applications that combine high speed, vision with high definition and fusion with GPS and satellite data.  Land based applications are the most diverse and highest in volume for human use. Water based applications are probably the most underutilized, yet of great use and potential.

As populations age around the world, service robots will play critical roles in compensating for limited human assistive staff, improving outcomes, extending physical abilities, and enabling many people to live comfortably,  independently, with human and/or pet animal, and/or social robot companions, longer.

Learn and Profit

To learn more on how to enter and profit from these rapidly rising markets,

  • Visit the Automate 2011 Show and Conference at McCormick Place in Chicago from March 21 – 24.  Automate Conference Session 6 “The Latest Developments in Service Robotics” will provide more detail on this topic.  The session will be held on March 22 from 3:15 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.  The Automate conference provides dozens of sessions encompassing the full spectrum of automation, including robotics, machine vision, motion control and more.  The 42nd International Symposium on Robotics (ISR) is fully integrated into the Automate Conference.

    Automate is sponsored by the Automation Technologies Council, which includes the Robotic Industries Association, the Automated Imaging Association, and the Motion Control Association. Some 150 exhibits will highlight automation-related solutions and applications on the Automate show floor, which is co-located with ProMat (sponsored by the Material Handling Industry of America).  ProMat is North America’s premier material handling and logistics show. 
     
  • Obtain “Vision for Service Robots,” an in-depth report that describes emerging innovation, challenges, solutions, opportunities and active companies, universities and government organizations in the Service Robots industry. http://www.vision-systems.com/research-reports.html.  The report quantifies financial opportunities in various markets and provides a detailed description of initiatives underway in each of them.
Editor’s Note: This article was contributed by Adil Shafi, a professional innovator and President of ADVENOVATION, Inc., with more than twenty years of experience in the robotics and machine vision industry.  He and Conard Holton, Editor-in-Chief, Vision Systems Design are co-authors of the “Vision for Service Robots” market report described above.  For additional information, please contact ADVENOVATION, Inc. at 734-516-6761, or visit www.advenovation.com.
Automated Imaging Association Motion Control Association