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The Future of Professional Service Robots

Non-Factory Robotic Automation Opens Up New Markets

Robots were born in the factory. The rise of automation outside of the factory environment is nothing short of a robotic revolution. Professional service robots are the result of rapid technological advances over the past few decades. As quickly as they’ve been developed and deployed, they’ll just as quickly hit mainstream applications and are expected become an increasingly common presence on job sites and in commercial venues around the world. There are already dozens of industries leveraging them.

While there are technological barriers for today’s professional service robots, they’ve progressed a long way in a relatively short of time, and the short-term market growth projections are optimistic.

Projected Market Growth of Professional Service Robots

By all measures, the market outlook for professional service robots is strong, with particular areas of explosive growth over the next few years. Overall, the market is expected to reach a value of $19 Billion by 2020, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Between 2018 and 2020, it’s predicted that the market will grow an average of 20% to 25% each year – a remarkable number due to the wide-ranging forms and functions of robots considered ‘professional service robots.’

Logistics robots are expected to lead the way in terms of sales volumes, with approximately 190,000 units sold worldwide between 2018 and 2020, representing an average 25-30% increase each year. Defense robots will sell 47,000 units in the same time period, a 15% yearly growth, and field robots will sell 29,000 units, an average annual growth of 10-15%.

Projections for public relations robots remain strong – after 133% growth in 2016, and then 37% growth in 2017, the number of units sold will increase 6x by 2020. Exoskeletons are another point of high growth. They had very little presence in the market in 2016, but sales volumes grew 35% in 2017, and by 2020 sales volumes will have increased 5x over 2017 levels, representing an average annual increase of about 25%.

The market for professional service robots of all kinds looks bright. Across the board, high growth in sales volumes is projected.

Technological Challenges for Professional Service Robots

To facilitate continued market growth, there are a few key technological challenges to widespread implementation currently being addressed. Chief among them are vision for navigation, dexterity for control, and cognition for human interaction.

Improving vision software to help professional service robots navigate may be one of the most important challenges to the continued success of these robots. To profitably automate non-factory tasks, almost every single type of professional service robot needs to be able to autonomously navigate the environment around it without being preprogrammed. Vision systems are still advancing to a point where this autonomy is a standard feature, enabling robots to detect objects in their path and successfully navigate highly variable environments.

Similarly, dexterity is a key issue when it comes to professional service robots. Unlike industrial robots, they aren’t locked behind cages, which means some form of force limitation may be needed to protect human workers. Just as importantly, many professional service robots, such as cleaning robots or agricultural robots, need to be precise and careful not to damage the objects they’re working with and around. Vision systems will play a key role here, too.

Finally, advancing cognition for better face-to-face interaction with humans is a crucial barrier to overcome. Some types of professional service robots, such as customer service robots and humanoid robots, speak with and help customers as their primary responsibility. This requires complex programming that’s constantly being improved by some of the world’s biggest tech companies, but still has room for improvement for more fluid and accurate interactions.

Today’s professional service robots face a few key technological barriers, but there are solutions in development that may make future professional service robots more capable than ever.

Technological Innovations in Professional Service Robots

For navigation, dexterity and cognition, there are a host of technological developments that show promising signs of solving some of the biggest barriers facing professional service robots. These technologies will help bring professional service robots into the mainstream.

Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (VSLAM)

When it comes to autonomous navigation, one of the most promising technologies is visual simultaneous localization and mapping (VSLAM). Basically, a VSLAM algorithm allows a vision system to map the environment around it while locating itself within that environment. These systems have clear advantages over GPS systems and allow for autonomous navigation and path planning, even in highly dynamic environments, as long as there are multiple vision sensors and some form of data fusion to make sense of the incoming visual data.

Embedded Vision

For dexterity, embedded vision systems play a key role. While this technology is also crucial for autonomous navigation, it can help robots stop operation if an unsafe interaction with a human occurs. Even more importantly, embedded vision systems can give professional service robots a lighter and more accurate grip in applications such as robotic fruit picking. In this scenario, embedded vision can help a robot recognize an object, determine the best way to grasp the object, and successfully move and grasp the object.

Artificial Intelligence

Cognition is the most difficult barrier to overcome for professional service robots, but fortunately, each incremental step yields drastically improved results. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques are used to train robots to more effectively interact with humans. The primary focus of these technologies is in improving natural language processing, which has progressed quickly over the past decade. Leveraging AI, customer service or humanoid robots can intelligently converse with humans, helping guide them around a store or solve a problem with the service they’ve received.

The Future of Professional Service Robots Looks Bright

Some of the most cutting-edge technologies available today are coming together in a way that gives professional service robots more capabilities than ever before. With these and new technologies, robots will be able to autonomously navigate and react to their environment while skillfully carrying out their automation responsibilities and intelligently conversing with humans.

With expanding capabilities, professional service robots will become an increasingly common presence in work spaces around the world. Whether it’s interacting with customers or automating dangerous tasks, professional service robots will be well-equipped to take over a wide range of responsibilities outside of the factory setting, opening up new market growth opportunities.

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