The New 2020 Roadmap
Recently the robotics industry celebrated its 60-year anniversary. We have used robots for more than six decades to empower people to do things that are typically dirty, dull and/or dangerous. The industry has progressed significantly over the period from basic mechanical assist systems to fully autonomous cars, environmental monitoring and exploration of outer space. We have seen tremendous adoption of IT technology in our daily lives for a diverse set of support tasks. Through use of robots we are starting to see a new revolution, as we not only will have IT support from tablets, phones, computers but also systems that can physically interact with the world and assist with daily tasks, work, and leisure activities.
The “old” robot systems were largely mechanical support systems. Through the gradual availability of inexpensive computing, user interfaces, and sensors it is possible to build robot systems that were difficult to imagine before. The confluence of technologies is enabling a revolution in use and adoption of robot technologies for all aspects of daily life.
Thirteen years ago, the process to formulate a roadmap was initiated at the Robotics Science and Systems (RSS) conference in Atlanta. Through support from the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) a roadmap was produced by a group of 120 people from industry and academia. The roadmap was presented to the congressional caucus and government agencies by May 2009. This in turn resulted in the creation of the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), which has been an interagency effort led by the National Science Foundation. The NRI was launched 2011 and recently had its five-year anniversary. The roadmap has been updated 2013 and 2016 prior to this update.
Over the last few years we have seen tremendous progress on robot technology across manufacturing, healthcare applications, autonomous cars and unmanned aerial vehicles, but also major progress on core technologies such as sensors, communication systems, displays and basic computing. All this combined motivates an update of the roadmap. With the support of the Computing Community Consortium three workshops took place 11-12 September 2019 in Chicago, IL, 17-18 October 2019 in Los Angeles, CA and 15-16 November 2019 in Lowell, MA. The input from the workshops was coordinated and synthesized at a workshop in San Diego, CA February 2020. In total the workshops involved 79 people from industry, academia, and research institutes. The 2016 roadmap was reviewed, and progress was assessed as a basis for formulation of updates to the roadmap.
The roadmap document is a summary of the main societal opportunities identified, the associated challenges to deliver desired solutions and a presentation of efforts to be undertaken to ensure that US will continue to be a leader in robotics both in terms of research innovation, adoption of the latest technology, and adoption of appropriate policy frameworks that ensure that the technology is utilized in a responsible fashion.
Main Roadmap Findings
Over the last decade a tremendous growth in utilization of robots has been experienced. Manufacturing has in particular been impacted by the growth in collaborative robots. There is no longer a need for physical barriers between robots and humans on the factory floor. This reduces the cost of deploying robots. In the US the industrial robotics market has grown 10+% every year and the market has so far seen less than 10% penetration. We are thus far away for full automation of our factories. US is today using more robots than it has even done before.
A major growth area over the last decade has been in use of sensor technology to control robots. More digital cameras have been sold the last decade than ever before. When combined with advanced computing and machine learning methods it becomes possible to provide robust and more flexible control of robot systems.
A major limitation in the adoption of robot manipulation systems is lack of access to flexible gripping mechanisms that allow not only pick up but also dexterous manipulation of everyday objects. There is a need for new research on materials, integrated sensors and planning / control methods to allow us to get closer to the dexterity of a young child.
Not only manufacturing but also logistics is seeing major growth. E-commerce is seeing annual growth rates in excess of 40% with new methods such as Amazon Express, Uber Food, … these new commerce models all drive adoption of technology. Most recently we have seen UPS experiment with use of Unmanned Vehicles for last mile package delivery. For handling of the millions of different everyday objects there is a need of have robust manipulation and grasping technologies but also flexible delivery mechanisms using mobility platforms that may drive as fast as 30 mph inside warehouses. For these applications there is a need for new R&D in multi-robot coordination, robust computer vision for recognition and modeling and system level optimization.
Other professional services such as cleaning in offices and shops is slowly picking up, this is in particular true given the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The layout of stores is still very complex and difficult to handle for robots. Basic navigation methods are in place, but it is a major challenge to build systems that have robust long-term autonomy with no or minimal human intervention. Most of these professional systems still have poor interfaces for use by non-expert operators.
For the home market the big sales item has been vacuum and floor cleaners. Only now are we starting to see the introduction of home companion robots. This includes basic tasks such as delivery services for people with reduced mobility to educational support for children. A major wave of companion robots is about to enter the market. Almost all these systems have a rather limited set of tasks they can perform. If we are to provide adequate support for children to get true education support or for elderly people to live independently in their home there is a need for a leap in performance in terms of situational awareness, robustness and types of services offered.
A new generation of autonomous systems are also emerging for driving, flying, underwater and space usage. For autonomous driving it is important to recognize that human drivers have a performance of 100 million miles driven between fatal accidents. It is far from trivial to design autonomous systems that have a similar performance. For aerial systems the integration into civilian airspace is far from trivial but does offer a large number of opportunities to optimize airfreight, environmental monitoring, etc. For space exploration it is within reach to land on asteroids as they pass by earth or for sample retrieval from far away planets. For many of these tasks the core challenge is the flexible integration with human operators and collaborators.
The emergence of new industrial standards as for example seen with Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet facilitates access to cheap and pervasive communication mechanisms that allow for new architectures for distributed computing and intelligent systems. The Internet of Things movement will facilitate the introduction of increased intelligence and sensing into most robot systems and we will see a significant improvement in user experience. The design of these complex systems to be robust, scalable, and interoperable is far from trivial and there is a new for new methods for systems design and implementation from macroscopic to basic behavior.
As we see new systems introduced into our daily lives for domestic and professional use it is essential that we also consider the training of the workforce to ensure efficient utilization of these new technologies. The workforce training has to happen at all levels from K-12 over trade schools to our colleges. Such training cannot only be education at the college level. The training is not only for young people but must include the broader society. It is fundamental that these new technologies must be available to everyone.
Finally, there is a need to consider how we ensure that adequate policy frameworks are in place to allow US to be at the forefront of the design and deployment of these new technologies but it never be at the risk of safety for people in their homes and as part of their daily lives.
The Roadmap Document.
The roadmap document contains sections specific to societal drivers, mapping these drivers to main challenges to progress and the research needed to address these. Sections are also devoted to workforce development and legal, ethical and economic context of utilization of these technologies. Finally, a section discusses the value of access to major shared infrastructure to facilitate empirical research in robotics.
The Roadmap is available from http://www.hichristensen.com/pdf/roadmap-2020.pdf
The roadmap is formulated based on consultations and meeting with more than 80 people from across US and involving industry, academia and government institutions.