Report: Farm, War Machines Rule Professional Service Robot World

The International Federation of Robotics predicts that 93,800 professional service robots will be installed from 2012 to 2015, and that the majority of them will be used for defense and agriculture. Sales of personal and domestic service robots will also increase, primarily for household and entertainment applications.

In this blog, we'll examine some of the results of the IFR's report on service robots (registration required). In a blog post last week , we looked at the IFR's report on industrial robots.

Unit numbers are much smaller for service robots than for industrial robots. Like a Freedonia Group study we discussed last month, the IFR distinguishes between professional service robots and those aimed at domestic and personal use, and it found that professional robots comprise the vast majority of service robots.

In 2011, according to the IFR, professional robot unit sales increased 9 percent over 2010, and their dollar value increased 6 percent. The largest category (6,570, or 40 percent of the units sold) was defense machines, mostly unmanned aerial vehicles. "Field" or agricultural robots, such as milking systems, came in second at about 5,000 units, or 31 percent.

Robotic logistical systems, such as courier systems and automatic guided vehicles for factories, accounted for 13 percent of professional service robots sold in 2011 (about 2,100 units). As we've discussed in our comment boards, not everyone would define automated conveyor systems as "robotic." Medical robots, especially those that assist in surgery and therapy, accounted for 6 percent (about 1,000 units).

Other categories had unit sales well below 500, including construction and demolition, rescue and security, mobile, professional cleaning, inspection and maintenance, and underwater robots.

Between now and 2015, the IFR expects logistical systems and medical robots to be among the fastest-growing types of professional robots, partly because they're both long-established sectors. That makes total sense to me. But defense and agricultural robots will remain by far the largest categories. Although the defense numbers don't surprise me, I wouldn't have guessed that the agricultural category would be so huge.

Professional service robots have a much higher cost per unit than the Roomba vacuuming your living room floor or robots that do yardwork, come in hobby kits, or are sold as toys. The exception to the lower-cost rule for domestic and personal robots is the technology-dense class of personal assistance robots used to help the handicapped. The two costliest types of professional service robots are medical robots (averaging about $1.5 million) and underwater robots (about $850,000).

Unit sales of household robots -- those that do housework and yardwork -- increased by 15 percent in 2011, to 1.7 million, the IFR said. Sales of robots for entertainment and leisure, such as toys and hobby kits, increased 12 percent, to 841,000. Although many research projects are focused on personal assistance robots for the handicapped, only 156 of them were sold in 2011. However, the IFR expects sales of such robots to reach 4,600 by 2015. Rapid growth is also expected for robots for home security, surveillance, and personal transportation.

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