Service robots finally start to catch on

This is an exciting time for those of us in robotics. We are finally starting to see sales in the service robot category after years of predictions. Silicon Valley companies such as Fellow Robots, whose OSHBot assists Orchard Supply Hardware shoppers, and Savioke, whose Relay robot makes deliveries to hotel guests, are leading the way into the emerging personal and service robotics industry.

And there are plenty more. Fetch Robotics, for example, builds robots that pack boxes for e-commerce deliveries. Bossa Nova Robotics is building a new service robot. Adept produces an all purpose mobile base that can autonomously navigate around. SRI International, Eksobionics, and Pneubotics are all working on assistive technology suits to make workers stronger, or help people with disability or injury. Catalia Health and RobotsLab are incorporating AI into social robots to help people manage their medication or even act as a personal stylist. And more are on the way.

Until now, industrial has been the dominant sector for robots, particularly in the car industry and consumer electronics. In fact, the industrial robotics market is worth more than $32 billion dollars.

Meanwhile, service robotics has, to date, seen a huge gap between research and commercialization. And we’ve seen very few successful personal or service robotics companies, in spite of the pressure of labor shortages and an aging population.

However, the service robotics industry is now growing strongly and encompasses all of the new market areas not defined as industrial robotics. It is hard to accurately predict growth here when there is such potential for rapid growth as costs drop, new systems are introduced, and new suppliers start to proliferate.

The International Federation of Robotics has tracked overall annual growth at around 11.5 percent so far and projects more than 20 percent annual growth to come. But some niche areas have already demonstrated growth of between 150 percent (mobile platforms) and 650 percent (assistive technology) in the last year. The primary market areas for service robots so far have been in defense, field (agriculture and inspection), logistics, and health/medical applications.

One of the new categories to emerge in the last year is the humanoid helper, kiosk robot or retail robot. Hot on the heels of this professional service robot category has come a wave of affordable social personal robots, like Jibo, Pepper, Buddy, and Mabu.

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