Really where are they? Given how many companies are building some form of robot it seems like there should be some proportionally greater number of companies out there forming to implement, service, and operate these robots. Where are they?
Frank Tobe isn’t finding a lot of them forming in his start-up list. Even the RIA seems to have fewer integrators than suppliers. AUVSI has many more Lockheeds and Insitus than VT Services. One could make a case that this is characteristic of the peculiar industries that we’re looking at. The robotic counter example is perhaps the ROV industry which routinely provides the ROV as a packaged service to the off-shore oil and gas industry. But most consumer robotics are still selling to early adopters. Our consumer customers are all people who want tech for tech’s sake, not to mainstream customers that are just looking to solve a problem.
Think about other complex goods in our economy. Computers have a vast cottage industry associated with servicing and maintaining them which is probably as big or bigger than the software industry proper. All vehicle industries whether air, ground, or sea have vastly more businesses in the business of selling the services than engaged in construction of the vehicles–even if constructors do manage to capture a large share of the total revenues of the industry.
I think our industry has a problem. I’ve talked to people at the oil and gas majors and heard straight out that robotics companies are producing robots which have a business case to be used several applications, but they will never be used until a credible organization to is there to provide the robot as a service. It is a bit of chicken and egg, but I think this applies as you go down the chain, not just in large capital projects.
When doing sampling or reconnaissance, customers want actionable data not a fleet of robots or new employees. I know from experience that infantry brigade commanders love having drone imagery of the battlefield, but don’t want to worry about having to support the drone unit, they just want to see the battle. This is equally true in forestry, agriculture, infrastructure, and minerals.
Do I really want to own a cleaning robot? No, I would much rather have a business that comes to my house every week and keeps the place clean whether that business uses humans, robots, or both.
Even in medicine, if I were a hospital operator I’d love to be able to push the risk of owning the robot back onto someone else. If I can pay per procedure and not worry about utilization, maintenance, or obsolescence–I’m much more game to adopt something new.
To date, our industry has done a relatively poor job of making robotics accessible to people and organizations who aren’t willing to organize around robotics and develop organizational competence in robotics. Providing robotics as a service could greatly expand the number of potential customers. I think when we see these businesses start cropping up, we will know that our industry is no longer in its infancy.