In the last decade, the U.S. military poured money into unmanned ground systems to help protect troops against improvised explosive devices, but the Defense Department won’t need all those robots once the war in Afghanistan comes to a close.
Robotics manufacturers may lament the news, but it isn’t too much of a surprise, say industry executives and analysts. Reports indicate the wider market for ground robots is expanding in agriculture, logistics and health care.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army spent more than $730 million on unmanned ground systems that conducted missions such as bomb disposal and detection, route clearance and reconnaissance.
“There was a very specific need, and now that need is slowly disappearing,” said Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Army Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, director of the G-8’s force development directorate, warned that spending on ground robotics systems could be slowing down.
“You will hear me say today that the Army is committed to unmanned ground systems, and then you will also say that your investment should follow your commitment,” he said at AUVSI’s annual program review held in February. The Defense Department’s investments in ground robots during fiscal year 2014 may cause industry to question that commitment, he continued.
Just as troops leave Afghanistan, so will many of the robots that worked alongside them. The Army plans to upgrade 2,700 of its systems for use in training or further deployments, Dyess said. Another 2,469 will be divested and given to Defense Department partners or other government agencies.
Besides the Navy’s Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System — a program of record to field a family of three bomb disposal robots — the Defense Department will likely favor funding research-and-development projects over procuring new platforms, Mailey said.
Although the U.S. military’s spending on UGVs could decrease, a 2012 report put out by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) concluded that the wider market for service robots — robots that assist humans — is growing.
The report, which bases its predictions on sales figures of robots across the globe, estimates industry will buy about 93,800 service robots from 2012 and 2015.
U.S. and international defense applications make up about 28,000 of that number. The report did not take into account lower U.S. procurements of unmanned ground vehicles in its predictions, Gudrun Litzenberger of IFR’s statistics department said in an email. Still, IFR’s estimates are on the conservative side, she noted.
Sales of service robots increased 9 percent from 2010 to 2011, the IFR report said. The value of sales increased by 6 percent to $3.6 billion worldwide in the same period. Defense robots, including unmanned aerial vehicles, made up 40 percent of sales.
For iRobot — a Bedford, Mass.–based company that has found success in both the commercial and defense sectors — the downturn in Defense Department spending resulted in a drop in revenue from $465.5 million in 2011 to $436.2 million in 2012, according to financial statements.
In the past, defense and security sales made up about 40 percent of iRobot’s revenue, said spokesman Matthew Lloyd. Because of decreased contracts with the military and a 28-percent increase in sales of its home robots such as the Roomba, sales of defense robots are now only 10 percent of the company’s business.
“We still see unmanned ground vehicles as a key component of the modernization of the military and believe that we’re well positioned,” Lloyd told National Defense. “It is clearly just a matter of determining and expanding the applications of these robots.”
IRobot is also trying to market its defense robots to other industries. For instance, its Packbot and Warrior robots were widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan for bomb disposal, but also can be used in nuclear facilities for standard maintenance. In 2012, one Warrior and two Packbots were purchased for use in Robinson Nuclear Plant near Hartsville, S.C., to help minimize human exposure to radiation.
The company also restructured their engineering teams by combining defense and household divisions into one joint group, said Tim Trainer, the company’s vice president of robotic products for defense and security. This move has resulted in cheaper commercial technologies being integrated into new defense platforms.
“We took some low-tech, lower-cost, high-volume kinds of products and capabilities and are able to now incorporate those into defense products, [which] allows us to drive our cost down,” he said.
For example, some of its research platforms use Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, which was developed for video gaming, for collision avoidance and visual capabilities, Trainer said.
Like other defense contractors, iRobot is also targeting the international market and local and state security organizations, Trainer said.
The Army in March awarded a $14.4 million contract for its First Look system, a two-pound, throwable robot equipped with four cameras and a radio. But a police officer or SWAT team member could also use the device to provide situational awareness on a limited budget, Trainer said.
Outside of defense and security, the agricultural sector is another booming market for robotics, accounting for about 31 percent of unit sales in 2011, according to the report. Most of these were robotic cow milkers, which are especially popular in Europe, said Mailey.
Many agricultural processes, such as harvesting wheat and corn, have already been automated, but there are many opportunities for further work in this sector, industry executives said.
When Harvest Automation was founded in 2010, the company wanted to provide a robotic solution for a simple task usually done manually, Chief Executive Officer John Kawola said. The result was the development of the HV-100, a 90-pound robot for commercial nurseries that can pick up and rearrange potted plants.
Since the HV-100 was released last year, four large commercial nurseries have bought from four to six robots each at $30,000 apiece. A several hundred-acre nursery would need anywhere from 10 to 30 units to fully staff the business, Kawola said.
As the number of migrant laborers from Mexico continues to dwindle, nursery owners are concerned with maintaining a consistent workforce for a difficult, low-paid job, Kawola said. Using robots might be a way that farmers can ensure they don’t lose profits because of labor shortages.
The nursery industry is also well-suited for robotics because “they’re growing and harvesting and shipping plants in some cases all year round, where in a lot of other agricultural environments, they’re planting and harvesting once a year,” he added.
The company is planning follow-on products that would be able to trim and prune plants, apply chemicals and do “grading” — using sensors to judge a good plant from a bad one, Kawola said.
“We think there’s a whole segment of agriculture that could really benefit from mobile robotics in the area of information gathering, so whether it’s [getting] soil samples or using sensors or infrared tests to be able to judge the quality of crops, we think that could be a pretty interesting portion of the agriculture market that is generally not done today,” he added.
Farmers’ complaints about a shrinking migrant labor force also prompted San Diego–based Vision Robotics to develop a robotic grape pruner that uses stereoscopic vision, said co-founder Tony Koselka.
A prototype recently finished up the vine-cutting season, Koselka said. Depending on funding, which has come primarily from vineyard owners and government grants, production of the robot could begin in as soon as two years.
The base robot will cost from $100,000 to $150,000, Koselka said. The company claims it can do the same work at half the cost of manual labor.
But even in agriculture, where automated solutions are in demand, financing new developments can often be a difficult endeavor. Vision Robotics would like to further develop apple and orange picking robots, but hasn’t been able to secure the funding to do so, Koselka said.
“It’s a chicken and egg thing. If there was a machine, people would buy it … but it’s hard to get people to put money to development, and those are still relatively expensive development projects,” he said.
Sales of medical robots also increased 13 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the IFR report. Most of those are used for robot-assisted surgery and therapy, but medical practitioners may soon use robots to remotely consult with patients and hospital staff.
Earlier this year, iRobot’s RP-VITA became the first remote presence robot approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in hospitals.
The robot stands at the height of a human being, with a video monitor at the top that allows doctor and patient to see and talk to each other in real time. An iPad mounted on the device acts as the interface, and modified Kinect sensors enable it to move around the hospital without colliding into people or equipment, Lloyd of iRobot said.
Health care is only one sector where iRobot sees an opportunity to develop remote presence robots, Lloyd added. “We’ve talked about applications for telepresence robots in retail, in domestic security applications, as well as in the enterprise and health care [areas].”
Although the IFR reported a 3 percent decline in logistic robot sales for 2011, it contends that the drop is due to having more accurate data than in past years.
AUVSI’s Mailey said that logistics is an area that will see continued innovation and opportunity. He pointed to Kiva Systems, a North Reading, Mass.-based company that created an automated way to help retailers fulfill orders.
In a normal warehouse, items on shelves are stationary, and workers must navigate through aisles in order to move or obtain a product. Using Kiva’s system, the product moves to the worker instead of the other way around. Software sends robots across the floor, guiding them using a grid of barcodes attached to the ground. Once the robot reaches the right product, it moves under the shelf, lifts it up and brings it to the worker.
Amazon, once a customer of Kiva Systems, bought the company in 2012 for $775 million.
In the end, business are going to make money in robotics when they have “a really cool business case” that uses robots to simplify a job or make something more efficient, Mailey said. If you look at the robots that Kiva is using, “there’s nothing super crazy, fancy, [or] complicated about them.” Photo: Harvest Automation, iRobot