The year ahead is sure to bring a variety of new transformative technology into the fields of robotics. From the development of modern day land drones and the advancement of autonomous automobiles to the refinement of mobile manipulation technology, the robotics industry will undoubtedly continue to heat up throughout 2017.
However, despite all of the news that we’re sure to see about self-driving cars from Tesla or delivery robots from Starship Technologies, perhaps the biggest robotic trend we expect to see in the coming year involves the affordability and availability of better, more sophisticated robotic sensors.
The Year of the Sensor
Robotic sensors are essential for robots to understand the world around them — meaning sensors’ availability and affordability is crucial for research and innovation.
In 2016, the lack of availability of some of the top robotic sensors on the market impacted the entire robotics industry, as did affordability. In some cases, superior robotic sensors, such as a 360-degree 3D laser scanner, were being sold for $10,000 each and in many cases were unattainable because they were sold out.
But things have begun to shift. Robotic sensors being sold today are an order of magnitude better than their out-of-date counterparts with respect to size, weight, cost and – most importantly – performance.
As a result, these improvements in robotic sensor technology are creating a huge demand — which can only be looked upon as a huge incentive for sensor manufacturers to produce their product at a more rapid rate, but also with an architecture offering better configurations at a lower cost.
A few years ago, a 3D laser scanner cost roughly $20,000. Last year, that cost was cut in half. The way things are headed, the cost to acquire a top-notch sensor could hover around just $5,000 in 2017. Looking just beyond 2017, one sensor maker is claiming that a $50 multiplane LIDAR is coming soon. This rapid cost reduction is largely being driven by how incredibly sophisticated and optimized these robotic sensors are becoming.
An example of this rapid optimization can be found in the advanced depth perception technology offered by RGB-D cameras like the Microsoft Kinect or Intel RealSense technology. While primarily associated with gaming, these depth cameras are also being used by ROS developers within the robotics industry. Savioke, for example, uses a low cost RGB-D camera for its Relay robot.
Stereo vision cameras are also being optimized and used as part of the latest cell phone technology — another obvious contributor to the rapid cost reduction of robotic sensors. An example of this is the excellent depth of field capabilities of Apple’s dual camera iPhone 7 Plus.
Other Robotics Trends to Expect in 2017
The Rise of the Autonomous Automobile
Tesla will undoubtedly continue to dominate the real world of autonomous vehicles in the year to come.
The company announced in January that it would continue to upgrade the autopilot software in its fleet of self-driving cars — a move that will only enhance the company’s first mover status in the autonomous vehicle industry. When it does ultimately roll out this new technology, Tesla cars will be the first level 5 autonomous robot vehicles available to the general public. Many other automobile manufacturers will undoubtedly follow suit, the only question is whether they will get it done this year or next, or years from now.
Mobile Manipulation Changing the Market
The world of mobile manipulation will continue to grow in 2017 — most notably within the logistics industry, manufacturing industry, as well as in the service industry.
Examples of this include Toyota’s Human Support Robot, a standout in the 2016 RoboCup@Home competition, as well as Pepper, a humanoid mobile manipulation robot created by SoftBank. While these are two robots that are in the public eye, there are others that will be coming to market in 2017 that are sure to capture the public’s attention.
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