Rich Mahoney is the director of robotics engineering at SRI. He has more than 20 years of experience in the development and research of robotics. Here are some of his thoughts courtesy of an interview he recently gave:
In the whole 25-year-period there have been a couple of false starts, where the media would say that this is the decade of robotics. At the end of the day, that fizzled. I think we are in a similar situation now, where robotics is ramping up. There is definitely a surge in the development of robotics technologies beyond traditional manufacturing applications. Specifically, these are robots that are working in applications that are more interactive with people – instead of having a robot in a cage, you have one that is designed to work collaboratively with a person for lots of different kinds of applications. The trend is pushing towards that at the moment. I often talk about robotics not as a separate technology anymore, but as part of a technology continuum that includes consumer electronics, personal computing, etc. It is really the technology that allows you to extend and interact with the physical world. It is an interaction between the physical and the information worlds.
Because of that, robotics is benefiting from 30 or 40 years of personal computing that we have just gone through, and all of the infrastructure in terms of software, structuring capability, networking, data storage, and now emerging sensors for mobile computing. Those all are robotics technologies, and they are now available and are relatively inexpensive. As part of this trend, you are seeing more technologies for service applications, but the mobility and manipulation technologies are now starting to emerge. They are also more in a price range that looks like personal computing.
On the market opportunity for robots:
After 40 years of industrial robots, there have only been about 1.4 million units in terms of sales of industrial robots. That number is relatively small. A few weeks ago iRobot announced that it had sold its 10 millionth vacuum-cleaning robot, Roomba. The opportunity for robots in consumer applications in terms of unit sales is much bigger. The Roomba is the only robot that is having any kind of success right now, and it is still only at 10 million in sales. That is a lot of sales, but it is relatively small compared to the cell phone or auto industries.
The view is that this idea of robotics technology is in the minds of the public as robots with arms and hands, interacting with the world and doing things that support us in our personal interactions with the world on a daily basis. There is almost no penetration of those kinds of robots. There are very few of them. In terms of mobile robots, apart from Roomba, you see almost no penetration of robots. There are a handful of companies there, but it is still very modest. So the overall penetration is small, and the upside is enormous.
On the advantages robots being used in medicine and surgery:
I think another entry path to look at is the da Vinci Surgical System – this is da Vinci’s surgical robot. There are three or four thousand of these robots now placed in hospitals throughout the world, and there are around 500,000 procedures a year that are done with them. This robot is a medical device that is still being introduced. But the way it is used is you have a surgeon who is sitting at a control panel and remotely controls this robot that is designed to be inserted inside a patient in a minimally invasive way. Then there is a one-to-one correspondence between the movement of the surgeon’s hands and the motion of the robot. There are definitely advantages for the patient in terms of better outcomes, reduced length of stay, and reduced infections. A lot of doctors couldn’t do that surgery because of the difficulty in using laparoscopic tools, which are basically hand tools. But they can do it using the da Vinci robot. It allows a very skilled surgeon to actually have more skill in carrying out a difficult procedure.
Do you think we are at a tipping point in the robotics economy? What purposes do you see robots being used in the coming years?