2019 is behind us now, and for the world of mobile robotics, the year was marked by several notable highlights:
2019 at a Glance:
- Worldwide spending on robotics systems and drones will be $128.7 billion in 2020, an increase of 17.1% over 2019, according to a new update to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Robotics and Drones Spending Guide.
- Legged robots evolved to become a viable mobility platform. Several companies commercialized their legged robot solutions, including Boston Robotics, Agility Robotics and Ghost Robotics.
- Customer deployments of autonomous mobile robots (AMR) have matured from single unit pilot projects into multi-unit fleets of tens and hundreds of robots within a facility. (based on anecdotal evidence from our recent executive interviews)
- Warehousing and logistics is maturing into the leading application for AMRs.
Looking forward to the next decade, this article looks at the trends that we’re predicting will guide the commercialization and continued market acceptance of autonomous mobile robots.
The commercial use of AMRs is helping to evolve the control systems and navigation methodologies within controlled environments. While the progress of autonomous vehicles has stalled a bit in the last year, AMRs continue to evolve quickly. The roboticists who are pushing the envelope on AMRs today will enable the safe operating of autonomous vehicles in the future.
1. Robots as a Service will become the primary business model for autonomous solutions.
2019 was the year that Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) demonstrated its viability. In 2019, multiple robot companies successfully delivered out of the box automation solutions based on a RaaS business model. In most applications, the solution was not sold on the merits of the robot, but rather the throughput of the system as a whole, as measured by some key performance indicator (KPI).
Buyers and sellers both agree that RaaS makes the buying process simpler and faster. The ongoing support commitment in a RaaS contract ensures that the vendor is delivering on their commitments. In many RaaS use cases, the deliverable is actually data (e.g. retail inventory or planogram compliance). In this case, the robot is merely a novel method to fulfill the data acquisition process.
The RaaS buying cycle is an Operating Expense Sales Cycle
Companies like Locus Robotics, inVia Robotics, Savioke, Bossa Nova, KnightScope and others have forged the RaaS path into their various market segments. It hasn’t necessarily been easy for the pioneers, but RaaS has forever changed the commercial robotics market, much in the same way that Software as a Service changed the enterprise software market.
Delivery against a contracted KPI will continue to be the leading success factor for AMR solutions over the next decade. We predict that any mobile robot startup that is not building a solution around a RaaS business model will struggle to gain credibility in the coming decade. We expect new business models to evolve as new applications become viable.
2. The AMR market will evolve from products to solutions.
While robotics is hot, robotics technology alone is no longer the key selling differentiator. Five years ago, the early AMR pioneers came to market with mobile robotic “platforms”. Now, most of those platform vendors have transitioned to solutions selling.
A complete solution includes not only the physical robot, but also an application specific payload combined with a mature software solution (including integration to enterprise systems).
Fetch Robotics is one example of an early pioneer that has successfully evolved from a platform provider into a solutions seller. Fetch is now offering solutions such as their HMICart, CartConnect and RollerTop solutions and has consciously suppressed marketing their robots as a platform.
This solutions trend is an indication that the AMR market is maturing from the “Early Adopter” buyer to the “Main Street” buyer, who is less interested in an integration and engineering project and wants to see guaranteed results from day one.
In addition, all of the robotic startups launched in the last 18 months are focusing on a specific, niche application. They are delivering everything necessary to operate the solution and demonstrating quick time-to-value through a RaaS business model.
3. The AMR market will create opportunities for Robotic Service Providers.
Following on the trend of solution development, is the opportunity for application-specific payload development.
Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) is one AMR company that has successfully gone against the solutions trends with a business model to sell AMR platforms. MiR is launching MiRGo to highlight their partner community in developing standard payloads which attach to the top of MiR robots. This model enables the customer to leverage a common mobile base (software and controls), and marry it to a variety of commercial off the shelf payload options specific to the application. The analogy to this business model would be peripheral providers to PCs (e.g. keyboards, monitors and mice).
The acceptance of RaaS based business models, together with the evolution of mobile robot companies into solution and software providers, is eliminating the business opportunity for most generalized system integrators.
Goodbye System Integrators
The desire to deliver a complete solution has shaped the AMR market value chain differently from industrial robot suppliers of the past. Many “classic” system integrators are finding themselves cut out of the value chain for AMR projects. This is especially true for RaaS based solutions, where the mobile robot company wants to deliver a complete solution and limit end unit hardware customization (for supportability).
Hello Robotic Service Providers
One interesting trend in the AMR value chain is that several AMR vendors are outsourcing their hardware support to national and regional field service organizations. These field service organizations are filling the need for expert technicians who can support multiple product lines and deliver on contracted SLAs at a reasonable cost to the robot vendor. We predict that a new type of third party service provider will emerge in the next decade, termed “Robotic Service Providers” (RSP). These organizations will fill the void for the “care and feeding” of robot fleets. Eventually, RSP’s emerge as a “temp service” provider with fleets of various types of AMRs and drones available for deployment to meet any customer requirement, and rented to the customer on an hourly (or KPI) basis.
4. Research is HOT!
University research in robotics is a growing market segment as more students explore a career in robotics or STEM. There are only a few research robot providers currently on the market. Commercial systems are too expensive and closed (architecturally) to be of use in university research labs.Robotic hardware has matured to the point that it’s now on a commoditization curve. Software on the other hand is continuing to evolve. The cutting edge of robotic perception, sensor fusion, controls, path/work optimization and orchestration are ripe areas for ongoing research.
Research Labs Want Ready to Run Hardware
As a result, university professors are looking for reliable research platforms that they can use in their labs to help them complete their research and educational goals. The basic need is for commercial off-the-shelf systems which offer a complete hardware platform for quick prototyping.The launch of Botnuvo in 2019 is one example of a new company emerging to fill a market opportunity that has been overlooked in the last 5 years, while the attention has gone into the development of commercial AMR applications. We predict that this and other solutions will emerge in the coming years to help train all of the engineers and technicians who will be needed to design and support the growing robot workforce.
The botnuvo robot provides an affordable research platform based on ROS.
5. The battle for software dominance is just starting.
Similar to the PC market over the last 20 years, the AMR market is entering a phase where software innovation, rather than hardware innovation is the differentiator. And just like the Microsoft vs MacOS vs Linux operating systems wars, there is a similar “operating system” battle brewing in the AMR software realm. The application of machine learning models and artificial intelligence pipelines is one key area of innovation that will attract considerable talent and investment in the near future. All of this presents a large opportunity for the company(s) who can emerge as the dominant robotic operating system supplier.
The BrainOS Marketecture view of AMR Software (courtesy of BrainOS)
The frontier of innovation is now in the evolution of perception, controls, cloud interaction and logistical operations of a fleet of mobile robots. There are several software companies who are gearing up for this coming battle and they are building up large war chests to support their efforts. The top three independent software providers are: Brain Corp, Vecna Robotics and Bluebotics. Brain Corp has raised over $112M to date, and Vecna just announced a $50M series B round, bringing their total to $64M.
The battle ground for these companies in the coming decade will be for the hearts and minds of the application-specific robot companies (or Robot Service Providers) who are designing and deploying an automation system.
On the open source side, ROS is alive and well with a growing and thriving community behind it. Most university education and research programs are running on ROS which means that graduating engineers and computer scientists are already familiar with how to use it. There are also many commercial systems available which are built on top of a ROS foundation. ROS has enabled young robot companies to bring their solutions to market quicker.
2019 was a year of increasing year over year growth in all of the AMR market segments. This trend has put the market on a trajectory to surpass industrial and collaborative robot sales within the next 10 years (according to ABI Research). We are excited to watch this market grow and follow all of the innovation over the next decade.
Stay tuned as we publish a series of recent interviews with mobile robot company executives highlighting their individual forecasts of the future of the mobile robot market.