Robots as Innovation Platforms: the Upcoming Schism between Hardware and Software Providers

The Westport, CT public library has recently purchased two “NAO Evolution” humanoid robots made by Aldebaran Robotics (acquired by Telco giant Softbank) to offer instruction in robotics programing.

 

Salients

  • An Open Software Platform – The NAO Evolution robots is delivered with a software compatible with Python (open software) enabling programming and reprogramming of the device.
  • Too Expensive for Consumers – The initial version of the NAO was priced over $15,000. The NAO Evolution is said to be priced at nearly $8,000. Aldebaran Robotics presents the NAO as a “companion around the house” but current price point makes it a too expensive toy for most consumers. That said other cheaper platforms such as the Softbank Pepper (~$2,000) demonstrate that there are rooms for pricing improvement.
  • Sensors Equipped – NAO Evolution machines are fitted with two cameras, four directional microphones, a sonar, two IR emitters and receivers, nine tactile sensors and eight pressure sensors.

 

ARIS Analysis

  • Robotics Hardware Standardization – For robotics providers, the development of proprietary robotic hardware is time consuming and often expensive. As a consequence, funding robotic initiatives (whether through internal or external private funding) is challenging and the demand for fast ROI (Return On Investment) from funding entities drives prices up and kills business opportunities when offered pricings don’t match market expectations, or match only a market segment.
    Myria recently brought a vision detailing how robotic providers willing to make the market will drive down the pricing of their robotic hardware, subsequently bringing to large markets standardized hardware. As explained in the Myria document, a similar pattern occurred in all technology industries and robotics is not an exception.
  • Robotics as a Platform for Innovative Services – Most robotic systems available are developed around a primary functionality (handling/holding materials, vacuuming, drilling, etc) but this will eventually change and is already changing with platforms like the NAO. Agile hardware with the potential to handle many different software-commanded tasks become a platform for side services and enable software businesses to focus on growing the number of side services available and innovate.
  • Software Developer’s Opportunity & Challenges – For software developers, and not only robotic software developers, the ongoing democratization and standardization of robotic hardware will allow to offer multi-platform solutions and therefore to expand their reach faster. Two major challenges will remain: the choice of the supported platforms (which should be dictated primarily by pricing matching market expectation and sensor capabilities, actuation capabilities coming second) and the aptitude to deal with “real world” environments (which requires taking into consideration physical capabilities of systems that might differ from one platform to another and make multi-platform offers more complex) instead of multimedia content and data only.
  • The Future Robotic Service Providers – With increased standardization of robotic hardware and the development of larger specialized robotic software providers will rapidly come the need for robotic service vendors capable of a high level of customization for complex system requirements (e.g interoperability between robotic systems, databases, IT and Telco systems, et al. as well as implementation and maintenance services).
    For now, and this is particularly true for industrial systems, robotic providers combine hardware, software and service capabilities. For large industrial robotic implementations, it is generally admitted that the cost of implementation/customization equals the hardware costs. In a close future and as robotic service providers emerge and compete, service costs are likely to decrease making complex implementation projects more affordable but pushing margin down for current robotic vendors offering such services.
    Myria projects the development of a rather fragmented but fast paced ecosystem of service providers over the next five years, mostly because capital investment to launch such businesses will be relatively low (no need to develop proprietary hardware or software platforms, it is a skill based business) for providers solely delivering engineering capabilities.
    However, as the robotic service provider ecosystem grows and gets fragmented with many players, a need for competitive advantages sustaining high enough margins will push these service players to offer flexible solutions such as RaaS (Robotics as a Service) where the end service delivery (through highly flexible robotic systems) is what is sold instead of the service to make 3rd party robotic systems flexible: this scenario is already being explored by the manufacturing industry (large contract manufacturers developing “elastic” offerings thanks to in-house flexible robotic capabilities).