The robots are marching into mass production

During the Covid-19 crisis, robots have been used for monitoring patients, disinfecting medical facilities and for delivering medicines. Now they are about to move into mass production.

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  1. Garry White

The pandemic has been good for the robots.

During the Covid-19 crisis, robots have been used for monitoring patients, disinfecting medical facilities and for delivering medicines. They have proved their worth in helping medical workers reduce their exposure to the infection – and the industry’s experience over the last 12 months should help make future machines more intelligent and more useful.

This week, the robots took another massive leap forward after pioneer Boston Dynamics unveiled a new version of its four-legged dog-like robot Spot. The latest version is “self-charging” which means it can now power-up without human intervention. Spot can also now be controlled and reprogrammed via the internet without being “in range” of its ultimate controller. It is far more autonomous than previous versions.

A terrifying canine-serpent chimera

However, the most obvious new addition to Spot is a snake-like robotic arm in place of a head, which gives it the appearance of a terrifying canine-serpent chimera. This followed discussions with businesses such as BP and Ford that have deployed the machine since it went on sale last year for industrial uses, at a cost of $74,500 (£54,500) apiece. Now that Spot has an arm in addition to legs and cameras, it can do mobile manipulation “making its reach essentially unbounded”.

Boston Dynamics thinks that we will soon overcome our fear of these robots once we see their practical use.

“Five years from now when Spot is doing a last 100-metre food delivery, they’re not going to be thinking, ‘oh, that’s a scary robot’. They’re going to be thinking, why didn’t my burrito get here faster? We’re hoping that that day comes pretty soon,” Michael Perry, its vice president of business development said at the launch.

It may be overly optimistic to suggest robots will become commonplace so quickly, but the industrial applications are real. BP even thinks Spot can help it meet its tough net-zero carbon targets. As well as replacing employees in potentially hazardous situations, the robot could help us reduce its carbon footprint by using methane emission-sensing cameras and audio sensors to identify, quantify and stop leaks.

Enter South Korea

However, the most significant piece of news for the future of Boston Dynamics and Spot came in December when the sale of a controlling 80pc stake in the business to South Korea’s Hyundai was announced. The deal valued the robot maker at $1.1bn and will accelerate commercialisation of the group’s intellectual property.

“We are thrilled to partner with Hyundai, one of the world’s leading global mobility companies, to accelerate the company’s path to commercialisation. Boston Dynamics has a very bright future and we remain invested in the company’s success,” the robotics group said.

“Hyundai Motor Group envisions the transformation of human life by combining world-leading robotics technologies with its mobility expertise,” the South Korean company said. Hyundai plans to invest about $50bn over the next five years to become a “Smart Mobility Solution Provider”. This means investing in autonomous driving technology, connectivity, eco-friendly vehicles, smart factories, advanced materials, artificial intelligence, and robots. Chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, envisions the company “providing free and safe movement and higher plane of life experiences for humanity.”

Boston Dynamics was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992 and ran independently until Google bought it in 2013. SoftBank acquired it four years later for an undisclosed sum. Now, after decades of not making profits, it appears it is time to monetise this research and intellectual property – and that implies the robots are coming in significant numbers.

Although Boston Dynamics is good at grabbing the headlines, there are many other companies that are helping the march of the robots. Danish group Blue Ocean makes sanitising robots that use ultraviolet light to sterilise surfaces. US group iRobot, founded in 1990 by three members of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab, makes robotic vacuum cleaners and mops.

Automation accelerating

Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics has ambitious plans to mass produce thousands of humanoid robots this year. Four different humanoid models will start leaving factories during the first half of the year. Its most advanced Robot is called Sophia – and the company have big claims for the machine. “She is the world’s first robot citizen and the first robot Innovation Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme,” Hanson states. “Sophia is now a household name, with appearances on the Tonight Show and Good Morning Britain, in addition to speaking at hundreds of conferences around the world.”

Founder and chief executive David Hanson said the pandemic has increased demand for robots designed to assist and engage with humans. “The world of Covid-19 is going to need more and more automation to keep people safe,” Mr Hanson said, noting that the robots were no longer being built by hand, but the group was expanding its manufacturing capabilities.

Mass production is the gateway to mass ownership. The moving assembly line and mass production techniques developed by Henry Ford more than 100 years ago set the standard for worldwide industrial practice in the first half of the 20th Century – and boosted car ownership significantly in just a few years.

Hyundai may now be attempting to do the same with complex machines – and the robots will be coming into our lives at a rapid pace over the next few years. However, it’s probably going to be a quite few years yet until a robot delivers your pizza and garlic bread. But, soon enough, they’ll be knocking at your door.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

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