The robots are coming to serve you – just not in the way you think

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton October 21, 2018
Comparing the hype with the reality in the latest annual survey from the International Federation of Robotics.

robots in tech
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) has published its latest report on the state of the robotics market worldwide. While news that 2017 sales of industrial robots increased by 30% year-on-year to 381,335 units grabbed the headlines – with China, Japan, South Korea, the US, and Germany representing three-quarters of the global market – the market for professional service robots is smaller, but growing much faster, says the IFR.

This is the sector that covers deployments that are not in assembly-line settings. These include uses as diverse as logistics, defence, surgery/medicine, milking of cattle, powered human exoskeletons, and public relations/information tasks.

According to IFR research, 2017 service robot sales leapt by 85% to 109,543 units, up from just 59,269 in 2016. However, the sales value increased by just 39% to $6.6 billion, with the IFR blaming a decrease in orders for expensive automated defence systems.

In 2018, the IFR estimates that total sales of professional service robots will increase by 32% to about 165,000 units, with a value of almost $8.7 billion. From 2019 to 2021, almost 736,600 units will be sold, representing an average annual increase of 21%.

Logistics robots represented the biggest growth area in 2017, with 69,000 machines installed – 162 percent more than in 2016, accounting for 63% of the units sold and 36% of total sales value. Among these, 6,721 were automated guided vehicles in factories and 62,211 in non-manufacturing environments – in other words, in warehouses and other service settings, such as airports.

According to the IFR, sales of logistic systems will increase considerably in 2018: by 66% to about 115,000 units, valued at nearly $4 billion. And from 2019 to 2021, another 485,000 units will be sold, representing an average annual increase of 18%.

The boom in online retail among companies such as Amazon and Ocado may account for many of these shipments as the use of automated warehouses expands. The IFR adds:

It is assumed that the actual number of newly deployed systems is far higher.

Defence bots

With 11,992 units known to have been sold in 2017, defence applications accounted for 11% of the total number of service robot sales in 2017. Sales of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) increased by 5% to 10,260 units, with sales of robot ground vehicles growing by one-third year on year.

However, these figures are for dedicated military systems, and therefore don’t include the massive increase in ‘prosumer’ and consumer drones worldwide, some of which are used in professional applications, including in battlefield and security applications, blue-light services, and search and rescue operations.

Founded just 12 years ago, Chinese manufacturer DJI has about 70 percent of that market, with 2017 revenues of $2.8 billion. According to Dronesglobe, an estimated 10 million consumer drones from all manufacturers were shipped worldwide in 2017, with numbers expected to increase to 29 million by 2021 – figures not included in the IFR report.

So what of public relations robots, which for many people would constitute the most visible arrival of the machines on our lives? The widely held belief that humans will be swept aside by a wave of customer-facing robots appears to be groundless: just 10,400 such devices were sold in 2017. That’s 56% more than in 2016, but still a small number on the world stage.

The vast majority of these (10,043 units) were telepresence machines, or robots for mobile guidance and information in shops and museums, up from 6,388 in 2016. The total value of these sales increased by 41% to $177 million, giving us an average cost per robot of roughly $17,000 – cheaper than a human’s wages, perhaps, but still a high psychological cost for an unproven (and often disappointing) technology.

Nevertheless, annual public relations robot shipments will see an increase of 53% to about 15,870 units in 2018, while about 93,350 units will be sold between 2019 and 2021, predicts the IFR.

Of course, these figures don’t include software ‘robots’, such as chatbots and digital assistants, which may yet sweep aside thousands of customer service tasks, especially in help desks and call centres – markets that Google would like to own.

Milking the market?

Agriculture is one area that could genuinely benefit from the greater influx of robotics and autonomous systems. However, service robots in farming are hardly booming at present, according to the IFR, with a total of 5,386 milking robots sold in 2017: a year-on-year increase of just two percent. Shipments of other service robots for livestock farming, such as mobile barn cleaners or robotic fencers for automated grazing control, decreased by 14 percent to just 149.

By contrast, sales of medical robots soared by 73% year-on-year to 2,931 units in 2017, accounting for 2.7% of all professional service robot sales. The IFR says:

The most important applications are robot assisted surgery or therapy with 1,502 units sold in 2017, 22%  more than in 2016. The total value of sales of medical robots increased to £1.9 million, accounting for 29% of the total sales value of professional service robots.

Medical robots are the most valuable service robots, with an average unit price of at least $650,000, including accessories and services. Therefore, suppliers of medical robots also provide leasing contracts for their robots. Medical robots as well as logistic systems are well established service robots, with considerable growth potential.

A continued increase in medical robot numbers is expected, says the IFR. In 2018, some 4,360 units will be sold, 49% more than in 2017, and roughly 22,100 units will be shipped between 2019 and 2021, according to the organisation’s predictions. A growing sector will be mobile platforms in general use, it says.

The superhuman

One of the most surprising growth areas for service robotics is in human augmentation, with sales of exoskeletons up from 5,581 units in 2016 to 6,068 units in 2017. Such robots are used for rehabilitation in healthcare and in ergonomic support when carrying heavy loads, and have high growth potential, says the IFR.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence believes that exoskeletons could have a future on the battlefield, too. According to a strategic defence review published earlier this month, “human enhancement technologies”, including “gene editing, physical and cognitive prosthesis, and pharmaceutical enhancement”, are nascent now, but “their development over the next 30 years is likely to offer profound expansion of the boundaries of human performance.

The review adds:

The application of these technologies and the integration of human and machine on the battlefield present opportunities to enhance military capability and improve performance of force elements.

In other words, future troops may be exoskeleton- and pharmaceutically enhanced, and gene-edited into super-soldiers: the stuff of dystopian sci-fi, which is perhaps why the review was subtitled ‘The future starts here’.

Where are the millions of machines?

But back to the IFR report. So far – according to the organisation’s figures – annual robot shipments remain modest when compared to the hysterical newspaper headlines, even if growing in many categories. Nevertheless, this picture seems incomplete.

The organisation acknowledges this by breaking out other sales into different categories – including personal and domestic use robotics. Here, the total number of service robots seems far closer to the march of the robots depicted by tabloid newspapers.

Personal/domestic robot shipments increased by 25% to about 8.5 million units in 2017, with their sales value up even more – by 27 % to $2.1 billion. The IFR explains:

Service robots for personal and domestic use are recorded separately, as their unit value is generally only a fraction of that of most professional-use machines. They are also produced for a mass market with completely different pricing and marketing channels.

In 2017, the IFR estimates that nearly 6.1 million robots for domestic tasks, including vacuum cleaning, lawn-mowing, window cleaning, and other types, were sold – up 31% on 2016. Sales in this category could hit 7.5 million this year, adds the report, while toy/hobby robot sales could reach 2.5 million units in 2018, and 9.0 million from 2019 to 2021.

About 370,000 robots for education and research are expected to be sold in 2018 and another 1,670,000 in the period 2019-2021. Sales of all types of entertainment and leisure robots are projected at about 2.8 million this year, and 10.7 million units from 2019 to 2021, with a total value of almost $2 billion.

My take

The conclusions are inescapable. Yes, the robots are coming, but at present, millions more are entering our homes, children’s toy boxes, and skies (carrying cameras) than are sweeping aside white-collar jobs – at least, in public-facing roles.

Most of the rest are appearing in automated factories and warehouses. With each industrial robot able to do the jobs of perhaps 15 people – non-stop – the employment impacts on manual workers could indeed be severe, which is why retraining and skills will be the real battlegrounds in the years ahead.