The use of robotics has gradually gathered momentum over the past decade or so. If you were to step into a factory or even a warehouse right now it’s likely you’d see robots in full flow. But to date that’s just where they’ve stayed: firmly on the factory floor.
However, we’ve recently seen huge advances in AI, sensors, speech recognition and computer vision. All these technologies are combining with shrinking hardware costs and the rollout of 5G to make robotics more accessible than ever before. In our Technology Vision 2020 report, released in February earlier this year, we predicted that the convergence of these technologies would lead to a surge in the use of robotics ‘in the wild’ – non-enclosed public spaces – over the next three to five years.
This prediction was dramatically altered though by one of the biggest events to occur in our lifetime: Covid-19.
An accelerated immediate future
The pandemic has had a monumental impact on every walk of life and virtually every industry and business has been affected in some way. With social distancing in force and workers health the number one concern, this dramatic change of environment has paved the way for an acceleration in robotics in all aspects of society. As people have been asked to stay at home, robots have become critical to the ‘contact-less’ solutions businesses and governments have been striving for.
In the short-term, one area robotics is able to tackle effectively lies in managing volatility in demand and workforce available, while also creating a safe working environment for workers. Within warehouses, robotics are being used to manage uncertain demand and helping companies dynamically scale up or down their site productivity.
Robots are taking on new responsibilities during the pandemic ‘in the wild’ too, in many cases joining frontline workers in the fight against the virus as quickly as they can be produced. In Shenxhen, a start-up called Youlbot built an antivirus robot in just a couple of weeks. Its six ultraviolet bars can sanitize surfaces and its infrared camera scans for fevers among patients and the public. Similarly, Danish firm UVD Robots has developed a self-driving disinfection robot that uses UV light to completely disinfect rooms in just 10 minutes. It’s easy to see how useful these and similar robots would be in helping communities come out of lock-down, from public transport and schools to hotel rooms and restaurants.
A growing impact long-term
Taking the long-term view, the entire robotics ecosystem is set to be dramatically accelerated as the case for robotics and automation becomes clearer in light of the pandemic. Industrial companies will increasingly turn to robotics to react to structural changes that will likely occur as a result of Covid-19. Take the supply chain, for example, the pandemic has shown how companies have to rethink their processes to be able to withstand macroeconomic shocks. Automation manufacturing and logistics processes can help to mitigate the sudden increased costs from having to move manufacturing capabilities quickly.
Again, looking beyond those controlled spaces, expect robotics to have a growing role ‘in the wild’. This will be backed up by the increase in 5G technology, just as 4G networks grew with the rising popularity of smartphones, with any robotics use cases requiring increased data transfer rates and low latency. This, in turn, will see the need for humans to maintain and control robots remotely grow, and new demand techniques and tools for teleoperations and VR training increase.
So, while today’s robotics leaders are stepping up to address the needs of businesses and society right now, those set to benefit long-term will be building the foundation of a more automated future. It’s key to form partnerships, enable new capabilities and work with governments to demonstrate new opportunities now.
As robotics gather pace, there are still a number of considerations that businesses and developers must take into account in order to ensure the integration into society is a smooth one:
- Partnerships: It’s vital businesses look at the wider robotics landscape and build ecosystems that understand the standards, protocols, software and architecture already being developed to ensure they’re offering a competitive differentiator. Partnering with industry bodies or other companies can help to navigate this.
- Talent: A lack of skills in robotics across the industry could curtail efforts if businesses don’t focus on building their talent pipeline across patents, developers, technologists, architects and UX specialists. Using training, hiring new people, as well as collaborating with academia and industry is recommended to fill this gap.
- Automation anxieties: Concerns about automation have been temporarily pushed aside out of necessity. But what happens when we’ve got control over the pandemic – do robots continue to fulfil these tasks, or do businesses roll them back in storage? Whether it be through reskilling programs, or human-machine collaboration, businesses need to ensure they show considered, long-term thinking on how technologies will supplement their workforce. Otherwise, they face a significant backlash over putting profits before their people.
There are still questions to be answered about how businesses can best ease fears over the increase of robotics in society. However, as the world attempts to get back on its feet, robotics has shown that it does have a positive role to play. It should be an exciting time for businesses too. People being more used to daily robotic interactions could open a lot of new channels for businesses to interact with the world around them – this means increased customer interaction, data collection and even branding opportunities. Covid-19 has changed everything for everyone, but robotics is an area set to come out of the pandemic stronger than it was going into it.
Dan Farrell - MD Industry X.0 Technologies
Maddie Walker - MD Industry X.0 Strategy & Consulting, Accenture UK