COVID-19 Poised to Build a Robotic Ecosystem

Advances in sensors and computer vision are driving robotic ecosystem advances.

August 31, 2020

5 Min Read
Factory 4.0 concept : View of Gripper on universal robot is sorting goods on automatic conveyor by vision system in smart warehouseGetty Images

By Teresa Tung

Key takeaways from this article include the following:

  • COVID-19 is robotic adoption of smart robots.

  • IoT, 5G and robotics are poised to drive mutual technological development.  

  • Organizations that harness the growing robotic ecosystem are more likely to wield a competitive advantage. 

It’s been exactly 100 years since the word ‘robot’ was coined. But only recently, advances in sensors, speech recognition and computer vision, combined with shrinking hardware costs, have made robots widely accessible. 

5G has added further interest, with the cellular standard promising to enable companies across industries to extend their robotics capabilities beyond warehouses and production facilities and into the open world. In fact, 73% of executives surveyed for the Accenture Technology Vision 2020 report said they believe that robotics will enable the next generation of services in the physical world. 

[For all our IoT World coverage, read our IoT World 2020 conference guide.]

Perhaps the central catalyst in driving advances in the robotic ecosystem has been COVID-19. The circumstances of this global pandemic ( i.e., the need for people to distance from one another to be safe — have tuned robots from a “nice-to-have” to a necessity. This is true in the controlled settings of factories and warehouses, where robotics already has a foothold, and in non-enclosed and public spaces.  

Robots on the Front Line

One of the areas in which robotics has made the most progress has been at the front lines of coronavirus response  assisting health workers and scientists. Appreciating the need to move fast, companies have created robots that address a range of pandemic-related challenges.

One such is XAG, a Chinese agriculture technology company. It quickly repurposed its XPlanet drones and R80 robots to spray disinfectant in areas affected by the virus. Meanwhile, in Thailand, students at Chulalongkorn University repurposed robots that were originally designed to monitor stroke patients so they could also measure patients’ fevers and help doctors communicate with them remotely. And then there’s YouIbot, a startup based in Shenzhen, which built an antivirus robot in just two weeks. The robot can sanitize surfaces and scan people for fevers.  

Applications such as these highlight the usefulness and adaptability of robots. The public has seen how applications can be used for societal good, while governments, regulators and workers now appreciate the breadth and value of potential use cases for robotics. 

For businesses, the pandemic has underscored the importance of automation for business resilience. No company wants to experience the full force of a prolonged shutdown again, and automation can help ensure the effects of future lockdowns are less severe. They will also help as reopen. With social distancing guidelines in place, managers will need to account for a reduced workforce and help ensure people can remain at a safe distance from one another while at work. Robots can help in this task by taking on jobs that would otherwise have been carried out by human workers. 

Building a Robot Ecosystem

The pandemic has therefore strengthened the case for robotics and automation, something that will have long-term implications for the entire robotics ecosystem. Just as 4G networks grew in tandem with the smartphone explosion, so too will robotics, Internet of Things devices and 5G, driving mutual growth and development. After all, as robot use cases evolve and become more complex, they will demand increased data transfer rates and decreased latency. 

Businesses need to think carefully about who best to partner with to achieve their goals. Many robotics companies today have done a great job of stepping up quickly to address pandemic-related challenges. Others are thinking even further ahead about what’s needed for a truly automated world. They are using this time to form partnerships, enable new capabilities and work with governments to demonstrate new opportunities.

As they do so, they must be careful not to burn through the societal capital accrued during the pandemic. Robotics will have a long-term future only as it is embraced and accepted fully.  

With more and more robots in various enterprise environments, there will be a growing number of automated interactions between man and machine. To tap the advancing robotic ecosystem without alienating consumers and workers, it’s critical that businesses get these experiences right. Organizations need to consider the influence of robotics, and what core products and services will look like in a world where robots proliferate alongside human workers.

Delivering on the Promise of Robotics

In fact, very soon, nearly every company will need to think of itself — at least in part — as a robotics company. Doing so will require new talent within the organization and new partners to help acquire the skills, tools and machines needed to realize goals. Successfully managing robots out in the field requires robotics technicians, data scientists and fleet management expertise at a level that can be met only through a strategic combination of hiring, as well as sustained upskilling efforts.

The great robotic migration is underway, and the companies that prepare for it will benefit. The key will be ensuring that robots are integrated into society, accounting for all stakeholders: employees who need to understand optimal human-machine collaboration, customers who need to be comfortable with robotic-powered services, and the people who will almost inevitably come across these robots out in the wild. If organizations get this right, the potential global impact of robotics will be vast and exponential. 

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