Your Guide to Robotics

Everything you need to know about robots

by: Hayden Field

robotic hand, gears, and vehicles on a purple background

Humans have been fascinated with robots since we knew they were possible—for proof, just look at the past hundred-odd years of movie and TV blockbusters.

You could say it all started with Houdini’s 1919 silent film, The Master Mystery, which is credited as one of the first robot depictions in cinema. Since then, we’ve had The Terminator, Blade Runner, Wall-E, RoboCop, Transformers, Westworld…even The Stepford Wives. And although the current reality of robotics is less fantastical than the silver-screen portrayals, the technology—and its industrial applications—have advanced significantly in recent years. The market size has, too.

The global robotics market was worth about $49.9 billion in 2020, according to a Research and Markets report, and in five years, it’s projected to surpass $60 billion.

Just like with artificial intelligence, experts disagree on how to expressly define a robot. There’s no ironclad set of characteristics, but there are generally accepted guidelines: A robot is a programmed, automated, or autonomous device that can perform certain tasks with some degree of intelligence—and, on some level, understands both its environment and how to manipulate it.

“Robots are limited…They can’t do many of the things that we can do, but there’s a few key ways in which they are superior to humans,” Clara Vu, cofounder and CTO of Veo Robotics, a Massachusetts–based robotics and sensor system startup, told us. “Because they’re not limited by our physical bodies, they can be stronger, they can be faster, and they can be more repeatable. So tasks where strength and speed and precision and repeatability are really critical are really good tasks for robots.”

So let’s get those gears turning. In this guide, we’ll look at where robotics has been, how it works, and where it’s going. We’re focusing mainly on physical robots here, rather than robotic process automation and “robotic software” technologies, and we’re adding autonomous vehicles into the mix as well. You’ll leave knowing what differentiates the main categories of robots, how Covid-19 impacted demand, and how the tech fits into industries from retail and delivery to automotive and defense. We’ll take you through the mechanics of it all.

I. A brief history

II. How robots work

The world of robots can be divided into two main categories: industrial and service.

Industrial robots are typically used in manufacturing and assembly—for example, you could find them on an automaker’s assembly line or in an Amazon warehouse. These bots often perform repetitive tasks like packaging, labeling, inspecting, and even painting.

robots in warehouses

China News Service/Getty Images

Service robots, on the other hand, are typically the consumer-facing category—these probably come to mind first when you think of a robot. They’re used in sectors like retail, entertainment, hospitality, elder care, delivery, healthcare, and cleaning and sanitation.

  • Due to Covid-19, new demand for sanitation and delivery bots has led to spikes in sales. One projection forecast a 31% increase in service-robot sales worldwide in 2021.
Simbe Robotics is extending its partnership with Schnuck Markets

Simbe Robotics

Also, this guide mostly focuses on physical robots, it’s important to mention robotic process automation (RPA) here. It’s a way to automate rote knowledge work tasks using algorithms. Since the process doesn’t use mechanical devices, think of it as “software robotics.”

  • The RPA industry = big $$: Leading RPA startup UiPath, which counts Google, NASA, and Equifax among its clients, announced a $750 million Series F this year—making its post-money valuation $35 billion, over 10x more than in 2018.

But no matter a robot’s application, the machines are typically made up of the same main components: a physical structure, some sort of motor to move that physical structure, a power supply to fuel the motor (e.g., batteries), sensors to collect data about the machine’s surroundings, and a computer system to act as the brains of the operation.

Some parts you should know…

  • Machine learning
  • Sensors
  • Actuators
  • Extremeties

Machine learning

The robots of yesteryear (read: decades ago) were typically simple automated systems that completed the same repetitive task over and over. They had decision rules programmed into them—basically if-then statements that governed their actions. Now, robots have gotten a bit more schooling, as we wrote in our Guide to Artificial Intelligence: Many of their decisions can be informed by computer vision and deep learning—complex machine learning algorithms that allow them to “reason” and make decisions based on real-time events.

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III. By the industry

  • Retail
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Delivery
  • Shipping
  • Sanitation
  • Retail

    Retailers are “hiring” robots across the board. Upon walking through your next set of automatic store doors, you might see a robot cleaning the floor, scanning a shelf, or even assisting a customer. The adoption of these bots has been sped up by the pandemic, Gartner research suggests, as retailers are “scaling up smart robots” in physical stores and even introducing dual-purpose bots—for example, shelf-scanning and UV sanitization, or data-scanning and cleaning.

    IV. Gearing up for the future

    Robotic arm and Earth

    Francis Scialabba

    Robotics is on the rise for a reason: For many industries—even some of the most traditional ones—automation became a go-to solution to supply-chain slowdowns, labor shortages, and cash-flow issues over the past two years. And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

    Case in point: Robot sales in North America hit an all-time high in Q3 of this year, with ~29,000 units sold in the first 9 months of the year—and a $1.48 billion total value. That’s a spike of 37% in number of units over the same period last year, and 35% in value, year-over-year, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.

    To that end, let’s keep following the $$...and get into some of the robotics investment highlights from 2021 so far. Some of the biggest investment areas include warehouse automation, autonomous vehicles, agricultural robotics, and retail bots.

    Spotlight on warehouse robotics: The manufacturing sector is rebounding, according to the latest jobs report...with significantly fewer open positions than pre-pandemic, NBC News reported. That may be partly due to manufacturers further embracing automation and the recent surge in industrial robots, as well as the ongoing labor shortage. It’s a market worth ~$43.8 billion in 2021—and projected to surpass $70 billion by 2028 at the rate it’s growing.

    Exhibits A, B, C, and so on: This year, Softbank invested $2.8 billion in AutoStore, a warehouse robotics company specializing in storage and retrieval. Hai Robotics, a Chinese startup specializing in robots that can place cases and cartons on high shelves in warehouses, raised $200 million. And Fetch Robotics, a leading maker of autonomous mobile robots for use in fulfillment and distribution centers, was acquired in a deal for $305 million.

    • Walmart continued to expand its investment in industrial automation, announcing it will turn some of its stores into automated fulfillment centers. One of the retailer’s automated systems: Alphabot, which works to retrieve orders in a warehouse setting.
    • And Kroger, through a partnership with online grocery company Ocado, plans to open 20 robotic warehouses for grocery fulfillment, the first of them in Ohio.

    Currently, there are an estimated 3 million industrial robots operating in factories around the world. When it comes to annual installations of industrial robots, in 2020, the US came in third behind Japan and China (which won top billing by far, with a whopping 168,000 units shipped).

    Automotive is typically the most active sector in terms of robot installations, but electronics squeaked ahead in 2020, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

    How all of this affects jobs: It’s a complex question with a complex answer. In some ways, automation adoption could hurt jobs numbers; in other ways, it could help—and there are certain things the “machines will take our jobs” canon gets wrong.

    • One job category created by robot adoption is remote operators, or telerobotics. Some machines on the move need to be operated via a human somewhere else for safety and navigational purposes. Remote operators can control anything from delivery bots to emergency-response bots to autonomous vehicles (including boats).

    “It’s not so much that automation will create jobs in food service and cleaning as [much as it is] that these are the residual job categories that are growing as incomes rise and workers are displaced from traditional ‘middle-skilled’ work such as production, clerical, admin, and sales,” David Autor, a professor of economics at MIT, told Emerging Tech Brew this year. “The issue is job bifurcation/polarization. So, we are not running out of jobs, but we are not creating many good jobs for the majority of workers who do not have a BA.”

    One (related) question experts are asking themselves: How do we design systems that augment people’s workflows instead of replacing their roles? In some industries, robots are beginning to help bridge existing gaps—and one of these is rehabilitation pediatrics, according to Ayanna Howard, dean of Ohio State University’s College of Engineering.

    • “Because I work in the healthcare space, my whole job is to design robots to fill in the gaps,” Howard told Emerging Tech Brew in June. “We don’t have clinicians and therapists in the home, with the child, 24/7, basically every day of the week…There’s a gap, there is no person that can fill this gap in, and therefore robots are ideal.”

    People are talking about: Emerging robotics research. Some of the buzziest projects right now involve developing machines’ sense of “touch”—e.g., their way of registering varying sensations, temperatures, and textures. This can be done via mapping a surface with sensors (think: visualizing touch to understand it, rather than feeling the sensation itself).

    Even Meta is working on the puzzle, as a way to allow machines to more naturally understand the world and interact with humans, “whether the environment is real or virtual,” Yann LeCun, Meta’s chief AI scientist, said publicly. It’s a goal that aligns with the company’s rebranding with a focus on metaverse products.

    Finally, we wouldn’t be Emerging Tech Brew if we didn’t leave you with some fast-advancing technology to keep an eye on. So here are a few startups to watch…

    • For robotic drones → Zipline, a SF–based autonomous drone company that flies critical healthcare shipments like blood and medicine from distribution centers to wherever is necessary. It currently operates across parts of Africa.
    • For autonomous excavation → HoneyBee Robotics, whose autonomous drills and excavation tech is used in NASA missions, mining and oil, and the defense industry.
    • For food deliveries → Starship Technologies, an autonomous delivery robot startup, which currently has its zero-emission bots deployed at 20 college campuses across the US.

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    The midwest is making moves. Ohio has an unequaled amount of opportunities for your business—whether you’re looking to launch a new venture or take your existing one to the next level. Ohio fosters top tech talent from around the world, enjoys a top-ranking in affordability, and, on top of all that, has programs in place to help business leaders set up shop. Learn more at JobsOhio here.

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