Report: Robotics and Drones

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Written by Samantha Thorne

Presenters: Ali Zaidi (Of Counsel, Morrison & Foerster LLP), Victor Wang (Managing Partner, CEG Ventures), Chris Edvemon (Partner, Sinovation Ventures), Ali Kashani (Head of Postmates X), Arnaud Thiercelin (Head of US R&D, DJI), Mihail Pivtoraiko (Founder & CEO, Aptonomy), Arye Barnehama (CEO, Elementary Robotics)

To read the full report click here for the digital edition.

Robotics and drones are permeating human societies and work settings. Though many benefits accompany these innovations, they also bring alongside multiple challenges. Identifying robotics’ short and long-term risks and opportunities will not only allow investors and engineers to profit, but will improve the technology itself in order to assimilate into human society. By analyzing drones and robots in marketplace and societal contexts, investors can recognize whether humans will interface with particular technologies and adopt them into everyday life.

The “Robotics and Drones” panel assembled tech investors and heads of robotics companies to highlight technologies to be particularly attentive to—whether the advancements are right around the corner or more than a decade out. Recognizing specific effects that robotics and drones will have on infrastructure, security and the workplace, the panelists voiced concerns that investors and developers must acknowledge to ensure technology captures its ambitions and aspirations for the future. Ultimately, if technology emphasizes human-robotic interactions and we actively seek solutions to overcome its largest considerations and barriers, mankind will gain access to its impressive potential.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Investors should key in on opportune robotic technologies. In the short-term, a three to seven-year time horizon, there are many opportunities awaiting investors and robotics companies. Certain technologies should receive more attention in order for investors to capitalize and humans to benefit. Not only should investors recognize specific technologies as being opportune in the short-term, but companies need to strategize human-to-robot ratios within their business also. To do so, Arye Barnehama asserts that companies should keep their return on investment (ROI) calculations in mind when deciding how to deploy, implement, operate and adopt robotics into their operations to best apply their technologies to the workforce.

Investors should prioritize technologies that overcome labor shortages. Robotics and drones seek to overcome “labor shortage induced pain points.” Though scaremongering about job loss from technology is widely established, Chris Edvemon asserts that such sentiments are a falsehood. Rather, various industries house many unwanted tasks and occupations that need filling—with restaurant and agricultural industries serving as prime examples. One robotic company creates strawberry picking robots to assist Californian farmers harvest as there is an insufficient number of needed harvesters that threaten farms with bankruptcy. The harvesting robot applies existing technologies to combine computer vision’s confluence with multiple robotic arms and custom-made grasping technology to pick the fruit. Additionally, robotics that wash dishes are opportune investments since restaurants need this task completed but restaurant managers cannot find personnel to fill the blue-collared job. As the dishwashing robot is a leasing model, it becomes more economically viable as well.

Sidewalk robots are overlooked technologies. While automated vehicles garner the most attention, Dr. Ali Kashani argues they are overly heavy, fast, large and dangerous. Instead, sidewalk robots can transport necessary items (though not people) in a smaller, lighter and more cautious manner— making them easier to build and commercialize. Instead of requiring a human to travel in a car to obtain an item at the store, sidewalk robots take the human out of the transporting picture by providing the delivered item with its own mode of transportation. Some investors may be deterred by sidewalks’ regulation being at both the municipal and state levels rather than a single federal level. However, this helps prevent a regulatory monopoly dictating whether the technology will be implemented. Ultimately, sidewalk robots hope to establish a new kind of urban infrastructure while working with different communities to do so.

Robots that can maintain infrastructure are important investments. Vertically integrated and fully autonomous enterprise solutions, according to Arnaud Thiercelin, are the next big thing within the three to seven-year time horizon. As renewable energy takes root, it creates a challenge of how to manage various wind turbines, solar farms and dams. Drones provide a solution. Starting from a remote center located anywhere in the world, drones will be able to travel to the energy source, diagnose its infrastructure and later produce direct, follow-up or repair orders. Though this is not an immediate issue in China due to the country’s newer infrastructure, it is becoming a more pressing problem in the United States with its aging infrastructure.

Security is an important robotic application. Self-flying smart drone-based security systems are critical investments for the future. As robotic applications prioritize the “3 D’s” of using drones and robots to assume dirty, dull and dangerous tasks, the security realm relates to each category, particularly the dangerous category. This is because being a security guard is the second most dangerous profession in the United States and China faces security dilemmas from guards often abandoning their posts, according to Dr. Wang. How robotic security applications will interact with humans, especially during its transition period, is an important question.

Disruptions caused by emerging technologies will improve the quality of life and the economy. Applying a longer, 16-year time frame to anticipating future technologies is more speculative, but allows for forward thinking in how robots and drones will disrupt the existing order. Automation in particular, whether in manufacturing or transportation, has the potential to overcome traffic management or worker safety issues that humans face. In order for the future to realize these technological hopes, there needs to be a shift away from today’s scarcity paradigm that dictates human decisions. As drones, driverless cars and unmanned aviation alter human preferences and the way we think about obtaining things, technology will further disrupt society in economic and wellness terms.

Technology will streamline transportation and traffic. Mihail Pivtoraiko speculates that unmanned aviation used for personal transportation will be especially groundbreaking in the next 16 years. Companies that endeavor to introduce AVs on the road and autonomous, passenger-carrying aerial vehicles in the sky will disrupt ground and aerial transportation. To ensure that automated vehicles do not congest the skies and ground, but rather streamline transportation and traffic, engineers and investors must work to solve unmanned traffic management (UTM) issues. Technology platforms can pragmatically help overcome such UTM challenges by uniting different traveling robots on the platform to prevent “swarming” issues. As technologies improve transportation in the future, every industry will be bettered since transportation touches all industries.

Robotics will better worker safety and longevity. Many jobs are extremely dangerous and manually intensive. Robotics is intended to assume those more habitual, manual and repetitive tasks—in addition to risky jobs related to maintaining infrastructure—to allow individuals to pursue other jobs perceived as more fulfilling and safer to human health. Highly automated and flexible industrial robots will help fulfill this goal in warehouses and drones that improve security and maintain infrastructure will make humans safer. Ultimately, industrial, infrastructural and security-focused robotics will take humans out of more threatening and risky jobs, which will translate into less work-related stress and longer lifespans.

Technology will enter into more unstructured environments. In the longer time frame, industrial warehouses will witness highly automated and flexible technologies take root. As manufacturing production operations are robotized, warehouses and similarly structured environments will see technological implications first, asserts Barnehama. However, the larger disruption will occur as robotic and drone technologies advance so that they seep out of structured environments like industrial warehouses and into unstructured environments like the home. As more and more people can access and interact with groundbreaking technologies, robotics and drones developers must consider more than their product design and technology.

To benefit most from its technology in the future, robots developers need to consider its human impacts. Product design and investment decisions need to consider the human-robot interface. As artificial intelligence and machine learning have progressed, creations and products that seemed unreachable in the past are more achievable in the present. But often times when diving down into the viability and societal applications of technologies, as Dr. Wang voices, such analyses reveal that certain robots and drones are unfit for assimilation into human life. Thus, investors and engineers must zoom out and think beyond product design, but contemplate personal interactions and social implications.

Robots need improved programmability and dexterity. Applying a robotic view to concerns facing technology and its implementation, lack of dexterity and programmability afflicts robots’ assimilation into the workplace and society most. Robots are currently hard to program, especially on the industrial and commercial side due to the legacy of computer science and its usage of archaic programming languages from 20 to 30 years ago.

Programming should become more flexible in terms of doing a variety of tasks and learning from human observation. Robots also struggle to simulate human dexterity. Rather than being constrained by AI or computer vision, electromechanical movements and executing fine detailed-typed tasks afflict robots.

Drones have privacy concerns. As drones will not be leaving anytime soon, their privacy concerns must be addressed. To do so, technologies should prioritize and subscribe to drone privacy by building the product from the ground up with that priority in mind. Additionally, engineers and investors must look beyond the immediate product to the business side and ways to overcome concerns. By analyzing existing solutions to related technologies, such as fixed cameras and their accompanying privacy dilemmas, drone companies can take past lessons learned and apply them to the future. Labels also play an important role in addressing privacy challenges. Specifically, when tech companies have a history of compliance and maintain principles of safety, they should apply labels to ensure that others know the company and its products are credible.

Products need to be socially accepted. The biggest threat to technology is whether it will be accepted by society and used by consumers. In order to anticipate product failures, companies should perform a project pre-mortem and break down issues in terms of technology and design, and also societal implications. In terms of design, robotics should not be invasive and have an admirable design that blends in. Socially, the product should better lives, whether or not an individual is the direct product user. Taking the sidewalk robot as an example, its technology should have a universally beneficial purpose—such as overcoming food wastage and serving as an alternative to paramedics.

Technology should prioritize human-robot interaction. There are various levels of human-product interaction, each of which should prioritize safety. Robots at the Tesla headquarters, according to Edvemon, estrange humans and robots from one another due to safety concerns. Rather, robotics should prioritize its separate levels of human interaction: the robot’s actual user, those interacting with the user (such as customers) and society at large. Since robotics and drones are intended for human use, technology—regardless of how groundbreaking it is—should focus on the human factor.