Commercial robots are devices used by a business for the purpose of replicating, assisting, or substituting a human’s actions.
These robots typically address actions that are either repetitive or too dangerous for humans to perform. For example, a robot that inspects a mine for air quality and stability while collecting thousands of readings checks all three boxes.
While an increasing number of homes may put robots to work vacuuming their floors or mowing their lawns, the vast majority of current robot applications lie in the commercial sector, helping businesses optimize their operations while mitigating labor shortages, turnover, and training challenges.
Robots filling these roles are considered commercial robots, but there’s a huge range of different hardware and applications taking this on across nearly every industry.
Commercial robots are distinct from consumer or personal robots that may handle tasks in the home, such as automated floor cleaning or cute personal butler robots. Some robot form factors, such as drones, have both personal and commercial uses.
Types of commercial robots
The commercial robot market breaks down into two large groups–industrial robots and professional service robots. Industrial robots comprised about 80% of commercial robots sales in 2021 and are used primarily in manufacturing settings, performing activities such as assembly or disassembly, welding, materials handling, painting, packaging, labeling, inspecting, or testing.
Service robots are nonindustrial commercial robots that perform a wide range of useful tasks for humans. According to the International Federation of Robotics, worldwide sales of professional service robots increased by 37% from 2020 to 2021 and now comprise about 20% of the total commercial robot market. Service robots feature built-in control systems (with options for manual overrides), full or partial autonomy, and the ability to avoid humans and obstacles in their environs. Applications run the gamut from agricultural to personal care to exploring the surface of Mars or ocean floors.
Collaborative robots AKA cobots
Collaborative robots are commercial robots designed to work with and around humans. These robots feature far more sensors and safety features than their heavy-duty industrial counterparts because they must avoid humans and other obstacles to keep people and the work environment safe for all. Collaborative robots can be found across many industries, especially within warehouses, performing highly repetitive tasks without complaint.
Field robots are robots specifically designed for use outside, in rugged and highly varying environments. Their ability to navigate terrain, perform tasks and collect information via sensors with fewer to zero people involved is key to their value proposition. In agricultural settings, for example, field robots monitor soil quality, weed farmlands, and detect pollution, while a military application might include bomb detection and disposal or surveillance supporting combat operations.
Medical robots are used in a variety of healthcare settings. Surgical robots are sometimes more precise than humans for particular surgeries and in some cases enable remote operations performed by an off-site doctor. Biorobots and rehabilitation robots help people with limitations and also deliver training and therapies. Diligent Robotics offers the robot Moxi that helps healthcare workers with tasks not involving patients, such as delivering samples, medication, patient supplies and PPE. An extensive potential range of activities for robots in a hospital or healthcare setting hasn’t yet come to market, but the possibilities are seemingly endless.
Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
Autonomous Guided Vehicles, otherwise known as AGVs, operate in warehouses, distribution centers, and manufacturing facilities. These workhorse robots are load carriers that travel autonomously throughout a location. AGVs may come in the form of forklifts, conveyor systems, and carts, performing towing, pushing, and lifting tasks. AGVs make work in these locations safer and less stressful for human bodies.
Drones are unmanned aerial or marine commercial robots capable of remote operation and/or autonomous navigation, sometimes dubbed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Drones are used widely in the military for reconnaissance and operations, by energy companies surveying or checking on remote operations, and by search and rescue teams, not to mention film and television directors getting those cool overhead shots that are part of almost any hit streaming show these days.
Where are commercial robots being used?
Commercial robots are currently deployed across multiple industries including logistics, healthcare, hospitality, and more, particularly in verticals affected by labor shortages. While the tasks they perform may vary across sectors, commercial robots are changing the way many industries approach work.
The agricultural industry is filled with repetitive, labor-intensive tasks and a number of providers offer agricultural robot solutions to assist workers. Commercial robots pick and harvest produce, remove weeds, and assess the health of crops in the field. Greenhouses are now also home to robots that help reduce water consumption, increase crop yield, and fine-tune plant spacing for maximum efficiency.
The construction sector has seen its share of robotic innovations in the last several years. Many commercial robots used in construction are faster and more precise than their human counterparts, reducing the number of workers needed for different jobs. Robots lay bricks, drive materials around the site, finish drywall, or paint, guided by a smaller number of human robot wranglers.
The energy industry makes use of robots on multiple levels. Some solutions use robots to aid in the extraction and refinement of fossil fuels, while others monitor and inspect hard-to-reach components of the energy generation process, such as performing safety inspections of remote natural gas facilities without needing humans on site. Renewable energy providers also make the most of robot assistance; robotic tasks include patrolling solar array fields and de-icing wind turbines.
Commercial robots are no strangers to the healthcare industry. Friendly cobots deliver meals and linens and take away the empty trays and dirty linens in hospitals while sanitizing cobots ensure workspaces remain sterile. On the other end of the spectrum are robots in the operating room, improving the speed and accuracy of complex operations—at times operated from a different location, increasing access to care for patients in more remote locales.
Getting goods from one point to another is a complicated dance of hand-offs between warehouses, ground transportation, and sorting facilities. Logistics robots are offloading some of these tasks from humans, Robots kitted out with barcode scanners can get parcels loaded and unloaded into delivery trucks or shipping containers, retrieve items from storage racks, and update inventory systems autonomously.
While manufacturing is home to most industrial robots, professional service robots work alongside their heavy-duty cousins as well. Robots may deliver parts or components to different parts of the factory floor, help in picking and packing in the warehouse, or perform testing and inspection tasks. Robots are a great fit when the goal is to create a large number of completely identical items.
Mining’s inherent danger and challenging conditions make it well suited to professional service robot innovation. Mining robots are frequently armed with high-quality video replay and an array of sensors transmitting information aboveground. Mining robots are used for reconnaissance, data collection, and remote operations, making the job of getting materials out of the ground cleaner, safer, and more efficient.