Robotics industry braced to weather the coronavirus storm

Monday, 11 May, 2020

Robotics industry braced to weather the coronavirus storm

The robotics industry received record investment in 2019, totalling US$46 billion. According to recent figures published by global tech advisory firm ABI Research, a total of US$17.8 billion went to acquisitions and a further US$29 billion went into investments. Most of the funding was focused on autonomous passenger vehicles (APVs), surgical robotics and warehouse automation, with significant growth for field robotics and drone services.

“Despite not having commercialised their technology, autonomous passenger vehicle developers like Waymo, Cruise, Zoox and company have continued to amass enormous funding from the corporate and VC world,” said Rian Whitton, Senior Analyst at ABI Research. “Surgical robots also received huge funding, and have already been commercialised to a considerable extent, with Intuitive Surgical selling over 5000 Da Vinci robot systems to date.” The localisation of funds to a few specific sectors is down both to the anticipated effect of the technology and the relative market power of major auto manufacturers like Toyota, health companies like Johnson & Johnson and online retailers such as Amazon.

The United States and China account for 89% of all investment value, in terms of companies located in their various tech clusters. California hosts 77 robotics vendors that were invested in, while the rest of the United States had 88 companies. Other countries with considerable investment included Canada, Israel, Japan and the UK.

Aside from venture capitalists, a few major corporations have taken a significant interest in automation technologies, including Amazon with its investment in vision-based navigation developer Canvas Technology. Meanwhile, Softbank made a considerable investment in a variety of robot companies, including robotics service provider CloudMinds, hospitality robot developer Bear Robotics and fulfilment automation company Berkshire Grey. FLIR, the thermal camera manufacturer, also invested heavily in drones and ground robots to shore up its solutions for security and industrial inspection, with acquisitions including Aerodyne Group and Endeavour Robotics, formerly part of iRobot. “Major corporations understand that, while the robotics industry isn’t a short-term proposition, it will be the source of considerable productivity growth that will be necessary to compete in the future,” said Whitton.

Despite the scale of funding in 2019 growing considerably from the previous year, the impact of COVID-19 will likely mean it will be more challenging for many vendors to attract funding as investors wait to assess the likely scale of the economic downturn. Markets with an easy route to commercialisation, like surgical robots and warehouse automation, could benefit out of the crisis. At the same time, the autonomous passenger vehicle market could be adversely affected due to lack of business readiness, though this has not prevented big investments in APV developers like Pony AI and Waymo in the first quarter.

“Prior to the pandemic’s massive impact became clear, 2020 was already shaping up to be a strong year for robotics investment, with autonomous forklift and tow tractor developers Seegrid and Vecna already receiving funding,” Whitton concluded.

The findings are from ABI Research’s report ‘Robotics: Investments, Acquisitions, and Market Trend for 2019’.

Image source: Berkshire Grey.

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