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Boston Dynamics
Boston Dynamics’ Spot agile robot.

Robots Ready for Their Next Assignment

Feb. 14, 2021
A look ahead at the expanding application of robotic devices in the post-pandemic industrial landscape.

As IndustryWeek research recently showed, robotics continue to serve as a primary area of interest for manufacturers. And for good reason – robotics and on a larger scale automation are a key avenue to recognizing the type of efficiencies organizations need to compete within today’s increasingly digital workplace.

And, fortunately, in its Tech Trends That Will Shape 2021 Report, ABI Research anticipates that COVID-19 will not significantly disrupt the robotics market.  According to Senior Analyst Rian Whitton, the robotics industry can anticipate a significant rebound in 2021 as the negative impact of COVID-19 will slowly dissipate. “As the crisis has unfolded, interest in robotics has skyrocketed, even as deployments have stalled due to installation challenges and companies withholding investments. There have been exceptions with the increased deployment of service robots and systems for certain applications, like ultra-violet disinfection for hospitals and airports,” according to Whitton.

Furthermore, ABI Research predicts the industrial and collaborative robot spaces will continue their strong trajectory in 2021. “But the nascent stage much of the industry finds itself in precludes the possibility of a significant acceleration in adoption due to the pandemic,” said Whitton. “Acceleration will only come with better data orchestration strategies, more operational experience, and a further supportive ecosystem from adjacent technology vendors in the cloud, cellular and AI spaces.”

Boston Dynamics also has a positive outlook for 2021. “We expect to see increasing adoption of robotics, fueled by a growing need to remove people from hazardous work and automating the tasks that are impossible to automate with traditional tools, robots, or drones,” Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics told IndustryWeek. “This includes site inspection or data capture in environments where employees may be in close proximity to potentially dangerous situations.

“Recently, our agile mobile robot Spot was used at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site to measure radiation levels and create 3D heat maps of the radiation,” he continued. “It’s also being used in more day-to-day work in power plants and substations to automate tedious, expensive, and time-consuming inspection tasks.”

According to Perry, the pandemic highlighted the significant impact of robotics in a work environment. “Industries that did not previously pose a health and safety risk to workers now do. Employers are looking to technology to help protect their workers from infection, and the pandemic has accelerated the need for humans and robots to work together in new ways to respond to crises,” he said. “The result has been a new way of thinking about how automation can enable people to offload rote work while improving safety.”

Road ahead -- Perry expects to see automation expand to even more business processes ranging from construction and utility to oil-and-gas, as well as manufacturing. “In the coming years, we also see the demand for logistics services outstripping capability to deliver goods and material using traditional workflows,” he said. “Robots like Handle, our mobile robot for moving boxes in the warehouse, will help provide flexible automation solutions to satisfy the growing need for expanded logistics services in the years ahead.”

Of course, robotics are not exempt to challenges. The biggest challenge to robotics is understanding of its benefits and limitations, Perry explained. “With any new technology, there is an adoption curve and time required to adjust, particularly when we begin to see a shift from what was once considered the standard way of doing things,” he said.

“For example, the challenge of getting a team focused on the concept of putting its processes into robotic automation and an explanation of how it will benefit them and the company. Setting realistic expectations for this groundbreaking technology remains a challenge in teams that want to use robots to enable their teams to do more. At Boston Dynamics we see the potential for technology to add new jobs to the economy, augment human work and make it safer.”

Third parties will prove instrumental as robotics manufacturers look to scale, explained ABI’s Whitton. “Looking forward, other third parties like cloud service providers and computing vendors (such as AWS and NVIDIA) are building comprehensive robotics offerings for developers. While NVIDIA covers onboard processing, simulation tools, and ever-more comprehensive development platforms, AWS is building cloud computing specialized for robotics vendors,” he said. “These adjacent technology vendors will become increasingly central to the robot space as the use of their hardware and services become more ubiquitous.”

Peter Fretty is the Technology Editor for IndustryWeek. Contact him at [email protected]