Home Robotics a Growing Market

Brian Hicks

Updated April 22, 2013

Consumer robotics is becoming a big business. Last year, the market was worth $1.6 billion, and the focus was mostly on task completion and entertainment.

But by 2017, that market is expected to expand into a $6.5 billion sector. Although emphasis is likely to remain on task completion and entertainment services, security and surveillance (especially remote-controlled) will probably gain in importance.

Mobi Ballbot smallIn all of this, iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) remains the 800-lb gorilla in the room, although numerous companies are emerging with their own offerings. Growth is especially acute over in Asia; companies there seem to be focusing on task-oriented robotic systems, while companies in the West are undertaking advanced research and development.

All of this is the gist of a new report out from ABI Research, a group that specializes in providing detailed analyses of worldwide trends in emergent technologies.

Much of the growth in the robotics sector is being driven by improvements in economies of scale, made possible by application processors, sensors of various types (which also find use in smartphones and tablet devices), and a variety of microcontrollers and other components.

The market for these components has also been growing at a fast clip; from some $700 million in 2012, the market for electronic components and related units is expected to grow by five times by 2017. Of course, the current anemic state of the global economy has not allowed growth in consumer robotics to be quite as healthy as it otherwise could have been.

Plus, safety remains a concern—nobody wants a Terminator scenario. That means built-in redundancies, which increases initial costs of production. Moreover, the question of “What do we do with this robot?” remains a vague one, and it’s something any manufacturer has to pose and answer before the robot can even be conceived.

One sector that is seeing consistent growth—perhaps in sync with an aging American population and the increasing retirements of the baby boomer generation—is care for the elderly at home. Further, this sector carries additional incentives in the form of associated insurance and retirement income-related matters, making it attractive to manufacturers.

Robotics Development

Bossa Nova Robotics is a company that has come up with the Mobi ball bot. It could be used as a cleaning robot, since it can navigate tight spaces like chimneys and duct pipes or even waste-water drains. It’s a robot that basically ‘stands’ on one big ball, thus endowing it with an impressive mobility. It can handle any relatively smooth surface with ease.

The Mobi bot was born out of research conducted at the Field Robotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon, and it’s illustrative of the symbiosis between major universities, research centers, and startup companies.

Meanwhile, the older emphasis on robots as a component of U.S. military strategy continues to see a decline. After all, at the peak of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, we were blowing in excess of $730 million on robots that could help the armed forces clear ground, detect mines and bombs, and so on. But as those operations have wound down, so has the investment and expenses associated with them (as far as robotics is concerned). Instead, drones have taken the focus.

There is a consequence to this drop in defense requirements: many robotics manufacturers earned plenty of revenue from such contracts. iRobot, maker of the friendly Roomba, is one of them. The company has seen its revenue drop from $465.5 million (2011) to $436.2 million (2012).

However, the company is repositioning itself. Its Warrior and Packbot models were normally used for bomb detection and disposal in the war theaters in the Middle East. But they can be put to use in nuclear facilities for a variety of routine maintenance operations. Last year, one Warrior and two Packbots went off to the Robinson Nuclear Plant in Southern California to help out with maintenance work.

Future Robotics

Another interesting thing is a sort of cross-bleed between companies when it comes to the robotics industry. iRobot, for example, makes use of Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Kinect sensors—used in the company’s Kinect video game system—to help advance its own collision detection and avoidance capabilities.

Finally, agriculture and mining sectors are also beginning to demonstrate an increased affinity for robotic solutions. Mining especially is seeing major investment—Nautilus Minerals (TSX:NUS) of Australia is exploring the possibilities of underwater mining via robotic systems, and it’s just the start.

From healthcare to household work, mining to defense, robotics is increasingly finding wider acceptance and applications. It’s time to get in on the action.


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