June 15, 2024 in Robotics

What Does the Future Hold for Personal Service Robots?

While we still have a long way to go when it comes to service robots being part of everyday life, labor shortages have led to an increased adoption of "beyond the factory floor" robots. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) annual World Robotics 2023 report shows that, in 2022, the total number of service robots sold for professional use hit 158,000 units. This represents a 48% increase over the previous year, as different types of businesses around the globe sought to automate processes for jobs they could not fill.

Professional Service Robots

Automation technologies continue to add value beyond the factory floor in novel and interesting ways, and service robots provide a fascinating snapshot into that world. The top five application areas for professional services robots in 2022 were in transportation and logistics (86,000 robots), hospitality (24,500 robots), medical and healthcare (9,300 robots), agriculture (8,000 robots), and professional cleaning (6,900 robots), with all sectors experiencing growth aside from medical, which saw a 4% dip year over year. This decrease is likely due to the 2021 uptick in sales, when many health-care facilities deployed robots for various tasks during and after the initial COVID-19 outbreak.

In fact, it is in the wake of COVID-19 that service robots really started to gain traction, and not only for tasks like disinfecting and transporting medicine or food to patients. Robots began to emerge in places like hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, nuclear power stations, and beyond. Still, it’s not super common to encounter robots in everyday life situations. It may even be jarring for some to turn the corner in the grocery store and stand eye-to-camera with a robot. For service robots to become a larger part of the cultural norm, we’ll need to see a growth in personal service robots.

From Roomba to Rosie

With personal service robots, things could get very interesting and perhaps even shift the paradigm when it comes to the general public’s perception of robots. While the IFR figures on service robots show growth, these numbers only account for professional service robot deployments, not personal service robots. Examples of personal service robots include vacuuming robots, lawn-mowing robots, pool-cleaning robots, or personal companion robots for elderly people. While some of the products in the personal service robot category may elicit "what is the definition a robot" type conversations, ISO 8373:2012 defines robots as an "actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks," and personal service robots as "service robots used for a non-commercial task, usually by laypersons."

Stock photo of a service robot in the grocery store.

Most household robots commonly seen today perform specific tasks, such as cleaning pools, mowing the lawn, vacuuming the floor, and so on. Those old enough will remember Rosie, the robot in the television cartoon series The Jetsons. Rosie served as a housekeeper, and — in many ways — a member of the family. Rosie is significantly different than a Roomba, in that Rosie can speak, express emotion, and complete a vast array of household tasks. Widespread adoption of household humanoid robots like Rosie is very unlikely, at least in the near term, for several reasons.

First, these robots will be prohibitively expensive for the average family. Take iRobot, the manufacturer of the most popular vacuum cleaner robot, the Roomba, for example. The iRobot website says that the company has sold nearly 50 million robots worldwide, which is an impressive number overall, but that figure still only represents just a fraction of the US population alone. For many, spending even a few hundred dollars on low-end models is not a realistic option. Tesla is still developing its Optimus humanoid robot, known also as the Tesla Bot, which Elon Musk says will eventually be able to do anything humans don’t want to do. But instead of several hundred dollars, Musk says the robot will go for around $20,000.

Factored into the price tag, beyond the cost of development and materials, is labor. Humanoid robots are more difficult to build than purpose-built task robots or even industrial robots. It’s one thing to design a robot that can autonomously maneuver throughout a house and avoid obstacles while vacuuming; it’s an entirely different thing to build a general-purpose household robot that can perform most or all human tasks. In addition, many household tasks are too complex for a robot to handle, which is why no such general-purpose, household robot exists, and it’s fair to question when or if they ever will.

Household Robots of the Future

Household robots will likely become more popular over time. The question is, what will that look like? If you follow industrial automation trends, the answer could lie there. In the industrial space, there has been a rise in robotic off-the-shelf solutions built to perform specific applications or tasks, such as bin picking, fluid or adhesive dispensing, and palletizing and depalletizing.

For household robots, this could look quite similar. Instead of devoting time, money, and effort toward the difficult task of developing a general-purpose household robot, companies may opt to expand the list of application-specific robots designed to do specific tasks. What might these include? Laundry, dish washing, gardening, cooking, and even childcare-related activities could all be possible jobs for domestic automation.

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