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As the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic forces populations around the world to adopt social distancing strategies, many of the technologies that we considered “complementary” to our traditional day-to-day productivity have now become our primary modes of presence, collaboration, and productivity.
Waves of school closings across the world have moved educational resources and teacher-student interactions online virtually overnight. Distance-working, which was once treated mostly as a backup plan or flex-work option for most white-collar workers, has now become the primary work modality for tens of millions of people. Video-conferencing and collaboration apps have become the new medium for meetings and group interactions. This is the new reality of work in times of global health crises.
While far from an ideal situation for social animals like humans, these and other technologies that we talk about within the scope of Digital Transformation discussions have nonetheless helped businesses and schools continue to operate during this crisis even as workers and students stay home, and I shudder at the thought of how bad things would be today if we did not have them at our disposal. Sadly, not all technology categories that we like to talk about at Futurum Research are mature enough to have helped – at least at scale – this time around, and that is a shame. One of those categories is robotics, and I want to spend a few minutes touching on how the Coronavirus pandemic could be a game-changer for the future of the robotics industry.
I will glance over the obvious uses of robots in manufacturing and warehousing functions today, as we all understand industrial automation well enough. Instead, I want to focus this discussion on how robots might help address everyday challenges for millions of people stuck at home during a pandemic, because that type of general use case is a little more novel and timely.
How a Mature Ecosystem of Delivery Robots Would Help Distribute Food and Supplies more Effectively than Humans During a Pandemic
Carrier-operated robots to fill the last-mile gap: A mature fleet of Amazon, UPS, USPS, FedEx, and DHL delivery robots, paired with autonomous trucks, could take on deliveries of food, essential supplies, and take-out, particularly in cities and large population centers, to better allow residents to remain safely quarantined for extended periods of time. To get a sense for the type of scale needed here, Amazon is already considering hiring roughly 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers to help meet the sudden surge in demand from customers stuck at home during this crisis.
Community and Building-operated robots to fill the last-yard gap: The responsibility to deliver goods shouldn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of delivery companies and freight carriers, however. Gated communities and apartment buildings could also invest in their own automated delivery robots, essentially serving as a curb-to-door delivery mechanism to carriers’ last-mile delivery services. In an apartment building with hundreds of units, for instance, automating delivery from curb to door would allow last-mile automation solutions to remain efficient while not creating a health risk for residents.
More uses for curb-to-door robots: patient testing, garbage collection, and sanitizing services. One of the added benefits of such a tiered approach to delivery automation is that robots can also be tasked with safely delivering testing kits, then collecting test samples from quarantined populations, which currently poses a logistics challenge for local, state, and federal agencies. Community and building-operated robots could also be tasked with collecting and disposing of garbage from quarantined households in a manner that would limit unnecessary exposure and contamination of neighbors by neighbors. Specially equipped robots can also be used to disinfect common areas in buildings – like elevators, lobbies, gyms, mail rooms, and hallways – with minimal human involvement, which, during a Coronavirus type public health crisis, would be enormously useful. Robots tasked with performing these functions can be autonomous or remote-controlled; it doesn’t matter which.
Case in point: Robots are already being used to fight the Coronavirus pandemic, though mostly in China for now. Drones, for instance, are being used in a myriad capacities, from traffic control, temperature mapping, and aerial broadcasting, to safely delivering medicines into viral hot zones. Robots, for their part, are already being used to disinfect hospitals and buildings, deliver food and medicines, cook and serve food at restaurants, and even dispense hand sanitizer to people on the street, demonstrating the potential for their future value in times such as these.
How Home-care and Home-based Robots Would also be Helpful During a Pandemic
Addressing medical needs in the home: In times of social distancing, social isolation, and quarantines, home care robots could also provide a multitude of benefits for their owners and users, especially if designed or otherwise programmed to address particular needs. The first among these are medical care robots tasked with monitoring vitals, administering medications and treatments, connecting human in their care with medical professionals via telemedicine solutions, and making sure that they remain comfortable and safe until human-to-human contact can be resumed. Currently in the US alone, over 13 million seniors live alone, and a 2-12 week quarantine or mandatory period of social distancing could pose a cascade of health and safety risks for this population that access to home care robots could help mitigate.
Addressing other needs in the home: As other types of home care robots may be focused on – or otherwise retasked for – child care, cooking, security, and even dog-walking, the case could be made for robots making good partners to humans during public health crises – at least for people who can afford the luxury. We may, however, want to rethink what is and isn’t a luxury in times of extreme and prolonged social isolation, as robots can, at minimum, improve the quality of life of their users when they need it most, and more generally, solve very real challenges that are certain to arise during public health crises.
Companion robots can, for instance, help lessen the stressful impact of isolation on children and people struggling with anxiety and depression, and help make online learning more fun and effective. Security robots and drones can help lessen fear and stress for people living alone or feeling particularly vulnerable during a crisis in which respect for law and order may find itself on shakier ground than usual. Dog-walking robots could help further reduce incidences of community transmission by helping pet owners remain safely indoors. Cooking robots can also help individuals with mobility issues and other special needs take care of themselves with no outside help. Even lawn care robots may help homeowners and landlords keep their properties from looking abandoned as they are forced to shelter indoors.
Will the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 Serve as an Inflection Point for Future Robot Design and Demand?
Currently, the market for robots outside of industrial applications has not quite seen the level of mass adoption that telepresence, mobile collaboration, and remote productivity solutions collectively enjoy, but the Coronavirus pandemic is quickly becoming a proving ground for the usefulness of robots during times of public health crises – particularly when a significant percentage of the human workforce cannot be called upon to show up to work for extended periods of time. Depending on how well robots help mitigate the challenges of mass quarantines and pandemic response over the course of the next few months, I believe that the current joint trajectories of robot design, demand, and production will likely see themselves forever altered by the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Will we see a surge in investment from carriers and logistics companies like Amazon and UPS? Will we see a surge in investment from government agencies ranging from municipalities to FEMA? Will we see robotics companies begin to offer curb-to-door automation solutions to commercial properties and homeowners? Will we see growth in demand for consumer-facing robots, ranging from home care automation to companion and security solutions? I think so. Although it is far too soon to tell, I believe that this crisis will change the way that governments, organizations, and individual consumers perceive the value of and their need for various types of robots. To what extent and how quickly remain uncertain, but my hunch, even this early in this crisis, and even considering the scope of the economic challenges that may await us because of it, is that robots will begin to insert themselves into our daily lives sooner rather than later because of the role they will play in helping us mitigate this current pandemic.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
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