COVID-19 has accelerated the use of robots for numerous routine tasks, heralding a bright future for the robotics sector.
As COVID-19 demonstrates the vulnerability of the human race and its economic system to infectious disease, the robotics sector has a unique opportunity to evolve and thrive – at least in the short to medium term. Writing for Information Week, tech industry analyst James Kobielus says the post-pandemic outlook for robotics could not be rosier.
In the short to medium term, the greatest growth is likely to be in the following five robotics markets:
1) Robotic biosensing. Expect offices and other indoor workplaces to be “studded with biosensors” detecting viral pathogens in the environment, and screening staff for signs of infection.
2) Robotic distancing. There will be more automation in factories to ensure necessary distancing between human workers.
Proximity sensors will highlight infringements of distancing guidelines. There will be greater use of ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots) to reduce the need for face-to-face encounters between human workers, and autonomous drones and carts will be used to transport materials and finished products in production facilities.
3) Robotic disinfection. “Robots will become the primary means for automating the disinfection of every indoor environment, ranging from industrial and commercial to retail and residential.”
In order for human workers to return to shared workspaces, employers will have to be able to guarantee the cleanliness of their working environments. Smart biosensors and robotic cleansing platforms will sanitise workspaces and alert employers to the possibility of non-quarantined workers infecting sanitised workspaces.
4) Robotic delivery. AI-powered drones and other autonomous delivery systems will become the norm. In future, a human delivery person will be a rarity.
5) Robotic telepresence. AI-powered robotic telepresence will be used to facilitate human interactions ranging from virtual collaboration to telehealth.
THE LONGER TERM DIRECTION
“Just as gas masks, bomb shelters, and air-raid sirens faded from popular use in the years after World War II, some of these segments will flatline in the coming years while others boom.” While investment in AI R&D projects is likely to continue to increase, and robotic biosensing, distancing and disinfection will become prevalent, what’s less clear is for how long we will continue to prioritise hygiene in quite the same way as we do now.
The market in this area will certainly cool as the pandemic passes, but firms can continue to benefit from advances in hygiene technology by exploiting industries like food production and healthcare, as well as supply chains, whose managers will almost certainly be looking to permanently embed infection prevention measures.
A major future application for the technological advances robotics firms have made during the crisis is the defence industry. “The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that a society’s industrial might can be easily hobbled by a deliberately created contagion. Consequently, industries that are deemed essential at a national level are likely to have to comply with mandates that they implement robotic biosensing, distancing, disinfection and delivery as a defensive measure against such attacks.
Robotics research initiatives will benefit from COVID, as the technology becomes an increasingly central part of our lives. Robots aren’t quite ready to take over the world (yet), but COVID-19 does highlight the potential for robotics to support services and supply chains in crisis situations.