People talk about robots like they’re coming in the future, when in fact robots are here now in a big way.
The military uses thousands of robots every day. Manufacturing is increasingly robot heavy. Medicine is taking advantage of robots for both remote doctor-patient visits and surgery, but also medical lab processing.
Depending on who you ask and how you define the word “robot,” there are currently about 20 million robots deployed, give or take a few million. One company alone, iRobot, has sold nearly ten million robots.
Like so many technology-based, Moore’s Law-driven product categories, the rate of growth in robotic sales is a hockey stick. Futurists predict that we will reach a kind of “singularity” by 2035 in which the planet will have more robots than people. (We are projected to have 8.5 billion robots deployed by the time the planet has that many people.)
As a result of rising utility and dropping costs, companies from enterprises to small business will increasingly buy robots for all kinds of uses.
Robots are going mainstream in the workplace.
Two Silicon Valley companies, iRobot and Cisco, unveiled this month a new telepresence robot created for business. Called the Ava 500, the robot is designed to replace business travel with a self-moving videoconferencing system that simulates the experience of actually being in a remote location.
The advantage of telepresence robots is that the remote user is able to not only virtually sit at a conference table, but can also walk around and have meetings in people’s offices, tour the factory floor and engage in water-cooler conversations next to an actual water cooler.
Of course, telepresence robots have been around for years. But the Ava 500 has several qualities that suggest the category is finally ready for mainstream acceptance.
First, the collaboration of iRobot and Cisco is very interesting. Essentially, the “robot” part is iRobot’s proven technology, and the “telepresence” part is Cisco’s proven technology. So although this is a new product, it’s really the merger of two mature products.
The iRobot company has an amazing track record of mainstreaming robots. One of the biggest applications of robots is on battlefields first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. These are used for bomb diffusion and other tasks that would be extremely dangerous for people. Nearly all these military robots are made by iRobot, which really mainstreamed the use of widely deployed robots in theaters of war.
Another impressive feat was that iRobot was the first company to mainstream a household robot product: The Roomba and similar iRobot household floor and carpet cleaning robots have sold in the millions.
In other words, iRobot has a history of being first to create and mainstream product markets.
The Cisco part is based on the company’s EX60 personal video system, which has a 21.5-inch HD screen and camera connected to the Internet via WiFi. The EX60 has been around as a non-moving, non-robotic desktop videoconferencing system for years, and has included a touchpad and keyboard, as well as custom on-screen user interface optimized for business video conferencing.
The Ava 500’s camera and screen slide up or down to be at eye level either while people are standing or sitting down. The camera and monitor swivel independently, so the entire robot doesn’t need to move; the user can turn his virtual head and talk to individual people and look around.
Instead of joysticking the robot through a remote office or factory, the user simply taps the destination and the robot gets there on its own.
The Ava 500 also contains an object avoidance system. It creates a 3D internal map of its internal environment, which enables it to pass down halls, through doors and to go around objects on the floor.
When its batteries are low, it will go on its own back to its charging station and actually initiate the charging of itself. (The robot lasts 6 hours on a charge, according to the company.)
The Ava 500 goes into beta this year and should ship early next year for a rental price of about $2,500 per month.
That may sound like a lot of money to rent a smart webcam on wheels. But given that it’s designed to replace business travel, it pays for itself when a few business trips never need to be taken.
Apple this month announced a new computer, an update to its high-end Mac Proline, which will be manufactured in the United States, rather than China.
The idea that the world’s largest consumer electronics company would assemble its most expensive product in the United States, rather than China, is a shocking fact. But it’s a fact made possible by the rapid growth and falling costs of industrial robots.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese contract manufacturing company that makes the Apple iPhone and many other devices in mainland China, says they’re deploying a whopping one million robotsover the next three years.
Robots are enabling companies to move manufacturing home; and Asian contract manufacturing is fighting for its business by also using robots.
Robots are also increasingly used for product testing. For example, Ford is now using robots to test-drive cars, which is not only safer, but provides more accurate and cost-effective data and enables Ford to get new cars on the market faster.
The trend here is that robots are quickly becoming a competitive advantage in areas of work where they didn’t used to exist, or at a scale that used to be unheard of.
The robot revolution is coming to companies of all sizes.
No, they’re not humanoid. And, yes, they replace workers. However, sometimes they empower workers and simply cut costs, as is the case with the Ava 500.
Either way, it’s time to start looking at robots as a real-world competitive advantage in the workplace.