Over the last few months, we have seen some major changes to society. The COVID-19 Virus, or the more accurate name for the infection Sars-CoV-2, has changed many things. It has already infected more than 10 million people with 3+ million of them in the US alone (by July 2020). The global statistics is available here.
The outbreak of the pandemic has had a number of effects. First of all, the healthcare system has been challenged. People have also been quarantined at home for extended periods of time. A large number of people have been laid off in USA (and globally). In addition, people have almost stopped traveling. An obvious question is how robotics and automation can assist in such a scenario.
In the healthcare sector, there are quite a few obvious use-cases. I) there is a need to increase the frequency of testing people to get a nuanced view of the degree of infection and the speed of infections (R0). Laboratory robots allow for faster processing of samples and return of answers to people. In a city such as San Diego with 1.4 million people, the target has been to test 5,200 people every day. At that rate we could test everyone once every 9 months. Six months into the pandemic (July 2020) it is still very difficult to get a test unless you have clear symptoms. Using this strategy, we will not get solid data anytime soon. Testing of 3/1000 daily is not a tall order. Laboratory robots can automate the testing and allow for more extensive testing. Many healthcare professionals have been exposed to COVID due to their front-line jobs. As such, there is a real need to use robots to acquire samples from patients, but also to enable a doctor at a distance to examine a patient and acquire basic information such as temperature, blood pressure, pulse, etc. Using tele-presence robots it is entirely possible today to increase the social distancing between patients and medical personnel for many of the daily tasks and through this reduce the risk of exposure for professionals. There are thus many good use-cases for medical robots beyond the well-known examples in surgery.
Manufacturing has declined significantly during COVID-19 (15+%), which is partly due to changes in market needs, but also due to the economic recession gained momentum after the start of the pandemic. Total industrial production is down by 20%. We have seen automotive sales go down by more than 50% for some companies (FRED estimates a decline of 55%). When isolated at home the traffic patterns change dramatically. Retail sales was down by 20+% in May 2020 and food/drink sales were down by 50% in May 2020. At the same time e-commerce continued to have significant growth. Sales of goods in the traditional retail sector was shifting from brick-and-mortar shops to the web. During the recession in 2009 countries such as China used the opportunity to change strategy. They decided to invest in robotics. Since 2009 they have had annual growth rates between 40-50% according to the industry statistics from IFR. Initially through joint venture partnerships with companies such as ABB, KUKA, and FANUC. In addition, through launch of new robotics companies such as Siasun, GSK, and Etun. Recently, Chinese companies have acquired foreign companies such as the MIDEA takeover of KUKA. It certainly put China on the map as a major player in robotics. In the US, the annual growth in robot adoption has been 12-14% but in comparison to China with annual growth numbers of 40+% the focus has shifted towards automation in Asia with India and Vietnam as new growth nations. Today 30% of all cars are manufactured in China, will this change in a post-COVID economy? Today there is about 1 robot for every 20 workers in highly automated industrial countries such as Korea, Japan, US, and Germany and we have still a long way to go to the lights out factories, as reported by IFR World Robotics. Nonetheless, it will be important to explore how robots will serve as a catalyst for future growth in manufacturing.
E-Commerce has seen tremendous growth over the last year. The growth is both in US with major companies such as Amazon and Walmart, but also by companies such as Alibaba, JD and Tmall. Already today Alibaba with Taobao is 50% larger than Amazon and is expected to continue to grow. Amazon has deployed more than 200,000 mobile platforms in their warehouses (the number is more like 300,000 by now). In addition, we are also seeing major progress on automated object pick-up / handling with companies such as Covariant.AI, Righthand Robotics and Berkshire Grey. As people desire a minimum of contact for items entering their house, we will see higher automation at distribution centers. There is significant interest in the last-mile problem of delivering from the truck to the front door in a domestic setting. The last mile could be solved using a traditional mobile platform as seen by Amazon’s Scout, another solution is clearly humanoid robots such as digit by Agility Robotics or traditional services such as May Mobility. Leaving the ground for a minute the drone market is obviously also being considered for last mile deliveries as seen by Amazon Prime Air or the experiments by UPS.
Cleaning is another important topic. This includes cleaning and disinfection beyond the hospital and the home. iRobot has seen a major uptick in sales of vacuum cleaners and floor scrubbers during the pandemic and shares are up 65% year to date. Additional cleaning is important to many households. In addition, we have started to see a flood of UV-C disinfection robots. Using UV-C lighting it is possible to achieve a high degree of disinfection with more than 99.9% of the virus eliminated when more than 10 microwatt / cm2 is radiated onto a surface. In many cases, a high-power source is used to allow even indirect illumination to kill the virus. There are already more than 50 companies worldwide pursuing this market. UVD robots from Denmark was an early entry into the market and have sold a significant number of units worldwide. Keenon from China has developed a robot that uses both UV-C lighting and a vaporizer to disinfect an area. The vapor will get to areas that may not be directly exposed by the UV-C light and provide redundant security. These two robots are merely examples of the vast number of new robots entering this market. The first place to see deployment of these UV-C robots was hospitals and care facilities. Recently, other high-traffic use-cases such as airports have also seen deployments. One would expect other use-cases to include hotels, malls, cruise ships, and eventually, they may enter your house as supercharged home cleaning robots. This is clearly a new robotics market that we considered unrealistic just a few months ago.
Transportation has changed dramatically. Over the last decade, we have seen a change from owning your vehicle of transportation to a model where mobility as a service is becoming increasingly common. Uber and Lyft started out with drive services. Eventually, this service was extended to include e-scooters and more recently Uber Eats and similar delivery services such as GrubHub. The second-largest expense for most households in the US is related to transportation, after mortgage or rent. Through use of transportation as a service, it is possible to reduce the mobility cost and optimize for the actual needs rather than paying up-front for an expected service, in addition, parking, etc is no longer a direct cost. Recently, trucking companies such as TuSimple, UPS, Cruise, Waymo … have all started to experiment with level-4 autonomy, where the car is in charge but can request assistance from the driver. This technology has a lot of promise for both e-commerce companies and logistics companies such as UPSP, UPS, FedEx, … Transportation is a sector where results may be seen even in the short-term.
COVID has exposed opportunities for robotics from cleaning/disinfection over e-commerce to manufacturing and transportation. Robots are primarily designed to empower to people do things better, in some cases in terms of accuracy in other cases as power or sensory extensions, and access. In the aftermath of the 2009 recession adoption of robotics grew significantly. In a post-COVID world we will see new behavior patterns for social interaction, cleaning, collaboration and delivery. There are thus many new opportunities for utilization of robot technology to enhance many different aspects of everyday life.