How Far Has Service Robotics Come in 25 Years?

By Jeff Burnstein, Executive Vice President, Robotic Industries Association

I attended the 5th annual RoboBusiness Conference in Pittsburgh to find out where service robotics is right now and what opportunities exist for RIA members. What I found is both encouraging and disappointing.

The encouraging news is that there clearly are some strong markets for robots in service industries (a broad term that I’m using to mean anything outside of the factory).  Military robotics, fueled by huge investments by the US Department of Defense, is one very hot market.  But, in his keynote address, Kevin Fahey of the Army noted that while funding is high now that could change when the war ends.  Still, given the successes of robots on the battlefield in operations such as clearing mines and detonating IEDs, it’s clear that robots have a growing role to play in the military.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the emerging service robot industry is for the most part just that:  emerging.  Many have forgotten, but RIA launched an International Personal Robot Association (later changed to International Service Robot Association) 25 years ago.  Joe Engelberger, the “father of robotics” and one of RIA’s founders, was a primary force in the creation of IPRA.  We held events in Albuquerque and San Francisco that were eerily similar in size to RoboBusiness (about 250 or so conference attendees, 900 or so total attendees when exhibits only audience is counted).  And, speakers talked about all the wonderful things robots would soon be doing in our homes and to help the elderly. 

All these years later, we do see robots in our home, but in very limited single function roles (vacuum cleaning, lawn mowing, floor cleaning and gutter cleaning and toys so far).  The goal of a multi-functional home robot still seems to be quite a distance away, although companies such as RoboSoft from France believe they can have something commercially available at an affordable price within a few years.  Others remain skeptical, believing a truly useful home servant would be very expensive and key technical challenges remain unsolved.

The aging global population is a key driver for developments in robots to assist the elderly and infirm.  The governments of South Korea and Japan, as well as companies in those countries, are spending a great deal of resources in this field.  And, I was grateful to see that former RIA Board Member Takeo Kanade of Carnegie Mellon has a new Quality of Life Technology Center at CMU, funded by the National Science Foundation. (  

But, I imagine Joe Engelberger, the earliest and most passionate proponent of service robots, is disappointed that his dreams for an elder care robot and a multi-functional home servant remain largely unrealized.  I hope that we’ll see both developments before another 25 years go by!

I’m convinced that the industrial robotics and service robotics communities have a great deal to learn from each other.  The industrial robotics companies have proven technology solutions and access to factory environments that would be invaluable to service robot companies.  The service robot companies have innovative technologies and access to markets outside the factory that represent new opportunities for industrial robotics companies.  In the months ahead, I will continue my discussions with key industry leaders from both communities to find more opportunities to work together with the goal of expanding the use of robotics to benefit everyone.


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