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The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics: Interview with Rich Mahoney, Director of Robotics Engineering at SRI (Part 2)

Posted on Saturday, Nov 23rd 2013

Sramana Mitra: If you look at today’s robots, what would the market penetration look like? Are we still mostly in the area of industrial and manufacturing applications? How much have consumer applications taken off?

RM: First off, robotics is a very broad technology. There were talks about robotic kiosks at the airport that were handling the check-in for people bringing their bags. It was the first time I ever heard anyone refer to a kiosk as a robotic kiosk. There is a penetration of robotics technologies and a plurality of views on robotics. If you look at a mobile robot today, [you can see that it] actually has the same features as the powered wheelchair, which has been around for a long time. We don’t typically call [this device] a powered wheelchair or a robot, but we call some of these new mobile robots robots even though all of the features are the same.

A way to think about this is that you have industrial robots working in manufacturing plants. After 40 years of industrial robots, there have only been about 1.4 million units in terms of sales of industrial robots. That number is relatively small. A few weeks ago iRobot announced that it had sold its 10 millionth vacuum-cleaning robot, Roomba. The opportunity for robots in consumer applications in terms of unit sales is much bigger. The Roomba is the only robot that is having any kind of success right now, and it is still only at 10 million in sales. That is a lot of sales, but it is relatively small compared to the cell phone or auto industries.

The view is that this idea of robotics technology is in the minds of the public as robots with arms and hands, interacting with the world and doing things that support us in our personal interactions with the world on a daily basis. There is almost no penetration of those kinds of robots. There are very few of them. In terms of mobile robots, apart from Roomba, you see almost no penetration of robots. There are a handful of companies there, but it is still very modest. So the overall penetration is small, and the upside is enormous.

SM: In our previous discussion, you made a number of observations, for example, that costs are coming down and this enables more consumer-oriented solutions. You also made the statement that the Internet democratizes access to information and that robots democratize access to quality services. Let’s talk about some of the potential use cases. Obviously the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot is a very good use case of a quality service made by a robot that is making it in the market. What are other uses or functions that you think are coming down the pipe and are starting to reach the threshold of affordability?

RM: There was a trend in the early 1980s where you had computing technology that was starting to transition from government applications of very large computers to business applications that were more accessible. What happened in the 1970s is that those component technologies of computing started to come down in price and started to become accessible to a “hobby” class of computer scientists. It was the entrepreneurs of that hobby class who really began to drive more broad applications that ended up becoming the personal computer revolution.

From a trend point of view, what we are seeing now is that mobile robot spaces are now pretty inexpensive and are now available in the thousands of dollars range. The manipulation technologies are a gap also. Most of the robots that manipulate the environment are used in factory applications. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are expensive to program. It takes a lot of effort to manage them. What is happening now is that there is a class of lower cost manipulation technologies – robot hands, robot arms, or emerging humanoid platforms that are going to be in the thousands of dollars range. We will see robots that are under $10,000.

There is this enormous hobby class of roboticists, so we will see these technologies becoming available in the next few years. These entrepreneurial roboticists will start to drive many more applications. Those applications will be more oriented towards home services and other kinds of services. I think it is important that we are focused on not just mobile robots having arms and legs, which can actually do things like cleaning or food tasks at some level.

This segment is part 2 in the series : The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics: Interview with Rich Mahoney, Director of Robotics Engineering at SRI
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