"We all want our own robot to help with housework, chores, and yardwork," says roboticist, professor and Diligent Droids founder Andrea Thomaz, Ph.D. "So what's holding us back?"

Safety. Today, most robots aren't what you'd call safe. They move too fast, or they don't sense you, or they ignore you if you're between them and their task. That's why areas like Sydney's Botany Bay port have "human free zones" where robots can load the cargo without crushing people into pulp.

The safety side of the situation is changing fast, though. For example, just a couple weeks ago, the Oakland Airport hired a $100,000 Japanese Pepper robot to sling beer. Artificial intelligence approaches are freeing robots learn to move safely around people.

It's called collaborative robotics--cobot for short

Thanks to a rising generation of founders like Thomaz who are fed up with the old school approach to robotics, we're going to see a lot more "cobot" approaches that bring robots to the rescue--sometimes literally. For example, take the nursing shortage. We're projected to have a million too few nurses by 2024. Problem or opportunity? It certainly creates the perfect crucible for cobots, says Thomaz.

"If you think about a hospital or nursing home, it's an environment where most change happens within fairly certain parameters, hallways, and places. This is the kind of environment that's perfect for machine learning on-site," she says. Diligent Droids is supporting nurses by restocking supply closets, fetching, guiding and cleaning. The startup is in trials with Piedmont Hospital, Seton Medical Center, and St. David's South Austin and they're looking for more. Andrea shares more about how collaborative robots change what's possible in the TEDx talk below.

Famous as co-founder of iRobot, which makes the Roomba vacuum, Rodney Brooks sees the same opportunity. Instead of focusing on hospitals, he's looking at reinventing light manufacturing at his latest company, Rethink Robotics. He noticed as he built the Roomba in the 2000s in China that, "The old days of the infamous oversupply of labor was changing."

"I think manufacturing has been undervalued, especially in Silicon Valley," he says. "It's been about the next app, the next social interaction, but we've neglected manufacturing technology." His company has raised $132 million to automate factories with friendly, interactive, easily trainable robot team members like their robot Sawyer, whom you can see in the video below.

Carbon Robotics co-founder Rosanna Myers is also reinventing robotics in lighter, friendly ways. Her startup makes robotic arms that anyone can train, at a price points well below $5,000 a piece. Until recently, getting a robotic arm was seriously more expensive. It also required hiring a dedicated consultant to program. Affordable, easily trainable robots like Carbon's Katya make it possible to automate for smaller manufacturers or warehouse operations companies who often reset their lines. They used to stay away from investing in old school "one set" robotic lines--the kind you see making cars. Now, that's changing.

Collaborative robotics is projected to be a $95 billion business by 2024.

Today, the collaborative robotics market is small--perhaps $110 million according to analysts. There have been some early exits, like Universal Robots' purchase by Teradyne and Softbank's acquisition of Aldebaran for $100 million, but mostly it's a fragmented frontier. Small manufacturers are learning how they can affordable bring robots to work, and so are hospitals, retailers, warehouses and other sectors. Major robotics companies like ABB, Kuka, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and Robert Bosch are on the sidelines, eyeing acquisitions that can help them expand their markets. Collaborative robotics is poised for hypergrowth through the next decade, maybe even hitting the projected $95 billion by 2024. In other words, your cobot is coming soon.

Published on: Feb 20, 2017