I think the biggest opportunities in robotics are those which attack enormous markets where it’s difficult to hire and retain labor. One great example is long-haul trucking. Highway driving represents one of the easiest problems for autonomous vehicles, since the lanes tend to be well-marked, the roads have gentle curves, and all traffic runs in the same direction. In the United States alone, long haul trucking is a multi-hundred billion dollar market every year. The customer set is remarkably scalable with standard trailer sizes and requirements for shipping freight. Yet at the same time, trucking companies have trouble hiring and retaining drivers. It’s the perfect recipe for robotic opportunity.
I’m intrigued by agricultural robots. I’ve seen dozens of companies attacking every part of the farming equation – from field clearing and preparation, to seeding, to weeding, applying fertilizer, and eventually harvesting. I think there’s a lot of value to be “harvested” here by robots, especially since seasonal field labor is becoming harder to find and increasingly expensive. One enormous challenge in this market, however, is that growing seasons mean that the robotic machinery has a lot of downtime and the cost of equipment isn’t as easily amortized in other markets with higher utilization. The other big challenge is that fields are very, very tough on hardware and electronics due to environmental conditions like rain, dust and mud.
There are a ton of important problems to be solved in robotics. The biggest open challenges in my mind are locomotion and grasping. Specifically, I think that for in-building applications, robots need to be able to do all the thing which humans can do – specifically opening and closing doors, climbing stairs, and picking items off of shelves and putting them down gently. Plenty of startups have tackled subsets of these problems, but to date no one has built a generalized solution. To be fair, to get to parity with humans on generalized locomotion and grasping, it’s probably going to take another several decades.
Overall, I feel like the funding environment for robotics is about right, with a handful of overfunded areas (like autonomous passenger vehicles). I think that the most overlooked near-term opportunity in robotics is teleoperation. Specifically, pairing fully automated robotic operations with occasional human remote operation of individual robots. Starship Technologies is a perfect example of this. Starship is actively deploying local delivery robots around the world today. Their first major deployment is at George Mason University in Virginia. They have nearly 50 active robots delivering food around the campus. They’re autonomous most of the time, but when they encounter a problem or obstacle they can’t solve, a human operator in a teleoperation center manually controls the robot remotely. At the same time. Starship tracks and prioritizes these problems for engineers to solve, and slowly incrementally reduces the number of problems the robots can’t solve on their own. I think people view robotics as a “zero or one” solution when in fact there’s a world where humans and robots work together for a long time.