Chris Middleton presents a personal selection of just some of the stories we’ve featured on Transform Industry this year.

2021 was a year of strategy launch after strategy launch, at least in the UK. Whitehall unveiled new national strategies for AI (to turn the UK into a “science and technology superpower”), data, innovation, cybersecurity, and more – plus a 110-page report on robotics opportunities. 

More on the latter below. But first let’s look at what some of the key innovation areas have been for the UK and the planet in 2021.

The connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) market could be worth £41.7 billion to the UK economy by 2035. That was according to Transport Minister Rachel Maclean back in January.

The figure came from the Connected Places Catapult – the government agency for spurring adoption of smart mobility technologies – so could be seen as an official estimate.

The report added that by 2035, 40 percent of new UK car sales could have some form of self-driving capabilities. In turn, this could create nearly 40,000 skilled jobs locally in CAV technologies (with each worth nearly £1 million in economic value, if the Catapult’s figures are correct).

Autonomy was certainly on the landing pad globally, if not fully taking off this year. In the US in January, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorised Boston-based drone specialist American Robotics to deploy automated drones onsite without human operators present. 

A month earlier, the authority had announced new rules for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), requiring remote identification and allowing operators of small drones to fly them over people and at night – under certain conditions.

Meanwhile in September last year, the FAA granted Amazon Prime Air permission to fly short-haul delivery drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). The message from all this is clear: autonomous and remotely piloted drones are, gradually and cautiously, being cleared for commercial exploitation across a range of industries. 

This year, Amazon also launched Astro in the US, the first of its domestic robots – which were rumoured as far back as 2018 under the code name Vesta. Unusually for Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices, the robots have a $1,000 or $1,499 price tag, putting them in the same problematic category as many other home robots: overpriced for their limited functionality. Turnover of new consumer service robots grew 16 percent to $4.4 billion, according to the International Federation of Robotics’ (IFR) most recent report.

Back in the business and industrial world, one of the key markets for hardware robotics – including aerial platforms – is agriculture, especially as the pandemic has revealed weaknesses in the food supply chain.

The global market for all forms of agricultural robotics is forecast to hit $6.7 billion by 2032, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.3 percent from next year. That was according to a September report, Agricultural Robotics 2022-2032, from business intelligence company IDTechEx.

The document covered a broad range of technologies that could be used to tend or monitor crops and livestock. These include weeding and seeding robots, autonomous tractors, robotic implement carriers, platform robots, robotic harvesters, agricultural drones, and milking robots.

Worldwide, attention has certainly been turning to robotics, automation, and AI during the Covid crisis to help address seasonal labour shortages, health and safety risks, and market unpredictability at a time of sustained consumer demand.

However, $6.7 billion is a modest valuation for automating the sector that grows the world’s food: there are US tech start-ups that have received twice that amount in VC investment alone. It suggests that, while uptake is increasing, agricultural robotics is hardly looking at stellar growth.

Key enabling technologies include RTK-GPS (real-time kinematic GPS, offering more accurate location), LiDAR, AI, hyperspectral imaging, end-effector technology (grippers and other tools fitted to robot arms), and precision spraying systems.

Robotics and automation are also at the heart of a new research and development partnership between the UK and Japan – announced in the Spring, but part of a formal relationship that has existed since 2016. The aim is to aid the complex and hazardous process of decommissioning old or dangerous nuclear facilities.

Robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) also have important roles to play in battling pandemics and contagion. That was according to UK-RAS, the network that promotes robotics research within the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 

Yet despite this promise, the UK is lagging behind its major competitors in the adoption and use of industrial robots. That was the claim made by supply chain specialist Balloon One this year. It published figures showing that the UK is only the 20th most productive nation, behind its major industrial competitors in Europe, Asia, and North America.

Compared to countries with a similar manufacturing output, the UK uses fewer robots and so is not able to achieve the same productivity levels, said the company – using figures that are broadly supported by the IFR.

However, according to 2019 government statistics, service industries accounted for 80 percent of total UK economic output (gross value added) and 82 percent of employment in Q3 2020, when the measurements were taken.

It stands to reason, therefore, that manufacturing is – for better or worse – less important to the UK economy than to some others, though there are clear opportunities in making the sector more competitive and productive.

Leaders of a new national robotics research centre for the UK certainly hope so. It seeks to help businesses unlock the full potential of smart factories and industrial manufacturing, according to an announcement this month from Loughborough University, which is leading the project.

The Made Smarter Innovation Research Centre for Smart, Collaborative Industrial Robotics aims to undertake fundamental research to make automation more responsive, collaborative, and safe. 

It will also host demonstration projects to raise awareness of emerging capabilities and accelerate their adoption.

The centre brings together leading academics from the universities of Loughborough, Cranfield, Strathclyde, Warwick, and Bristol – experts across a range of disciplines, including manufacturing, engineering, robotics, safety, law, psychology, systems engineering, metrology, and ICT.

Worldwide, smart factories and manufacturing techniques are forecast to witness stellar growth over the next five years, according to a brace of 2021 reports.

A study by California-based market research company Global Industry Analysts Inc (GIA), predicted that the global smart factory market will be worth $214 billion by 2026, spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic, as manufacturers look to build more resilient, data-fuelled systems.

The crisis also revealed the pressing need for factories to ensure worker safety. Growth will be further driven by increased investments in automation, robots, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and connected devices for increased visibility, real-time data analysis, and predictive maintenance.

However, the difficulties of forging a consensus view in the analyst industry are notorious. A rival study by consultants Data Bridge Market Research predicted a far higher global valuation for smart manufacturing by 2026: $417 billion – nearly twice as high as the GIA report – with a CAGR of 11.75 percent.

Yet not all robots are physical devices, of course; many exist as software, on premises or in the cloud. The global cloud robotics market will be worth up to $27.5 billion by 2026, growing at a compound annual growth rate of more than one-third (33.1 percent) from 2021. That was according to a 278-page report from Seattle-based market intelligence company, Mind Commerce. 

Cloud robotics refers to a mix of industrial and service applications, including the teleoperation of physical robots via the cloud, the use of connected, as-a-service infrastructure and processing for industrial robots, and emerging applications such as Robotics as a Service (RaaS) via cloud-accessible cobots (collaborative robots) and other devices.

Meanwhile, investors and businesses are to get greater certainty over whether proposed deals in new technology spaces come under the scope of laws designed to protect the UK from predatory investment, foreign interference, and access to sensitive data, according to an announcement from the government this year.

Under the National Security and Investment Bill, the government seeks to offer businesses and the public greater protections from foreign investors and those seeking undue influence over certain industrial sectors and technologies.

This is a difficult balancing act as the UK relies on international partnerships and foreign direct investments, particularly from markets that could be lucrative for UK innovators, such as China.

It also demands that the UK can define what is and is not a sensitive sector, when market conditions are constantly changing, and technologies are always being redefined.

Meanwhile, the US remains a hotbed of artificial intelligence development and entrepreneurship, with nearly every software and hardware company pursuing AI capabilities. Despite this, Americans have “not yet grappled with just how profoundly the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution will impact the economy, national security, and welfare”.

So said another report published this year, this time by the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). 

Much needs to be learned about the power and limits of AI, it said, adding, “Nevertheless, big decisions need to be made now to accelerate AI innovation to benefit the United States and to defend against the malign uses of AI.”

Smart city programmes worldwide also need much stronger ethical and governance frameworks if they are to succeed. That was according to a white paper from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in July.

The document, ‘Governing Smart Cities’ , suggested adopting clear policy benchmarks across five key areas of benefit to citizens: ICT accessibility, privacy impact assessments, cyber accountability, digital infrastructures, and open data. 

The WEF looked at 36 ‘pioneer cities’ around the world and identified profound gaps in these policy areas – in cities of all sizes, in all regions, and at all levels of economic development. 

Those gaps suggested that some programmes are being implemented in a policy and governance vacuum, without considering the long-term risks to citizens from any failures in management or strategic vision.

Green and sustainable technologies are also critically important to the planet, as global warming rises. Twelve of the UK’s leading ‘green innovators’ showcased their wares to international investors at the government’s Global Investment Summit in October.

The ‘green dozen’ displayed a range of innovations, including zero-emission hydrogen vehicles, autonomous and electric vehicles, water purification systems, electric and eVTOL aircraft, robot-enabled automated construction systems, offshore wind, tidal stream technologies, fusion prototypes, decarbonisation systems, and more.

The companies were: Orbital Marine Power; Hydro Industries; Hy4Heat; Tokamak Energy; First Light Fusion; Arrival; Aurrigo – RDM Group; Wrightbus; Vertical Aerospace; Rolls Royce; Automated Architecture; and Drax Group.

So how is the UK doing overall in robotics and Industry 4.0?

The total UK market for robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) will grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 40 percent between 2020 and 2030. That was according to a report from the British government, The Economic Impact of Robotics and Autonomous Systems Across Sectors.

However, it will reach a market value of just £3.5 billion in that timescale, because of the UK’s low installed base of industrial and service robots, compared with other developed nations. So said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which published the 110-page document.

By 2035, it continued, the total value added to the UK economy from adopting all types of RAS will be positive, but modest: just £6.4 billion. By comparison, McKinsey recently forecast that the global economic boost from robotics could be as high as $4.5 trillion – a figure that the report acknowledges.

The uncomfortable fact is that, despite having identified robotics and autonomous systems as being one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ that would be critical to the UK’s Industrial Strategy – replaced this year by Boris Johnson’s Plan for Growth – the government has both failed to invest in automation and/or persuade business of the benefits in the years since.

In a report published this week, the IFR said that 126 robots per 10,000 human employees is the new global average robot density in industrial applications – nearly double the number in 2016. 

Its World Robotics 2021 Industrial Robots report showed a record three million industrial robots operating in factories around the world – a year-on-year increase of 10 percent. Meanwhile, the market for professional service robots hit a turnover of $6.7 billion U.S. dollars worldwide – up 12 percent. 

Stellar valuations are forecast for a related technology worldwide. By 2030, the Internet of Things (IoT) could unlock up to $12.6 trillion in global economic value – equal to over half the value of the US economy ($22.6 trillion). That was the prediction of another McKinsey report, which set out the steps leaders can take towards successfully adopting connected systems.

The Internet of Things: Catching up to an Accelerating Opportunity updated the company’s 2015 forecast and found that, while growth has not been as high as its previous report predicted, the IoT could enable gains of between $5.5 trillion and $12.6 trillion globally by the start of the next decade.

Transform Industry wishes you a safe and happy Christmas, and a prosperous, healthy new year.