SPECIALISING IN ROBOTICS IN EUROPE IN 2017
When we think about robotics, we usually think of Japan, including Honda’s famous robot Asimo, Sony’s equally famous dog robot Aibo and the numerous Japan-based manufacturers of industrial robots. However, the latest figures published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) show that Europe now hosts the largest number of service robot manufacturers. With 293 firms in Europe, compared with 242 in the United States and 134 in Asia, the Old Continent is showing impressive momentum in a market estimated to be worth $5.2 billion in 2017 and likely to see annual growth of 20% to 25% during 2018-2020. This growth is encouraging more entrepreneurs to make a career in robotics and quite a number of startups have been founded in recent years in this niche market. In the United States, two hundred startups are currently working to develop service robots; in Europe the figure is 170. When you add these fledgling firms to the more established service robot manufacturers, France ranks number two in the world, behind the US, but ahead of Germany and Japan.
SERVICE ROBOTICS plants BY REGION
Today Europe is well placed in the race to produce service robots, partly because the European Union and its member countries have set up a number of programmes intended to encourage innovation in the sector. The EU funds programmes to support research, service robot awareness-raising campaigns, plus a series of tournaments run throughout Europe by the European Robotics League (ERL). Following these events, students and researchers are motivated to set up companies so as to make practical use of the technologies they developed for the competition.
Moreover, in recent years, investors who are currently closely involved in digital technology projects have at last become interested in service robotics. Remember the Robolution Capital fund set up in 2014? This €80 million fund, initially managed by French businessman Bruno Bonnell, which invests exclusively in robotics technology, has now been taken over by the 360 Capital Partners fund. Robolution Capital took part in a financing round for the Navya autonomous vehicle. "There’s a real pool of startups, a large pool with a lot of firms involved, and nowadays there’s a lot of motivation in this field,” points out André Montaud, CEO of THESAME innovation and of the Cluster COBOTEAM. However, while Europe undoubtedly has momentum in the service robotics sector, to date it has had very little real impact. Explains Montaud: “I do believe the IFR analysis regarding the number of service robotics firms in Europe, but when we look at the total turnover of these players it’s very difficult to assess Europe’s real weight in this field. At the moment there’s no real unified market for service robots for professional use. The IFR estimates this market at $5-6 billion, a figure that should be compared with the $40 billion industrial robot market.”
AN EXPANDING MARKET IN PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL ROBOTS
Service robotics affects all areas of society
in turnover for the personal service robot market
While the service robotics market is today much smaller than the industrial robots market, its fields of application are ultimately far wider. In the long term, service robotics could potentially overtake industrial robotics in size and have a far greater impact on the world economy. As far as the general public is concerned, service robotics means robots that do your vacuum cleaning and lawn mowing, and will no doubt also be doing the cooking and ironing in the near future. In 2016 the market for these personal household robots amounted to 6.7 million units worldwide, with turnover of $2.6 billion. This market is still in its infancy, as is the market in service robots for professional use which, while it currently attains double the turnover – $4.7 billion –still only amounts to 60,000 robots a year. Logistics is currently the most significant area for service robot applications, a long way ahead of defence, agriculture, public relations, exoskeletons and the medical field . André Montaud points out that logistics robots are in great demand in the distribution and manufacturing sectors. “These days robot deployment in warehouses and storage areas is a booming business. Next come medical robots, a sector led by – and best known for – US surgical system specialist Da Vinci, then military robotics, with surveillance robots and drones but first and foremost mine clearance robots and robots designed to assist with military operations.”
THE TWINSWHEEL DELIVERY ROBOT
Up to now, the most likely place to see Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) in action has been large automobile assembly plants, where they are used to carry chassis or engines to the assembly lines. France-based BA Systèmes and Balyo, and German firm MLR are specialists in this market, which is expected to reach a value of close to $2.7 billion by 2022. Meanwhile, since the 1980s, when logistics robots first appeared in manufacturing, they have expanded to other sectors, the most obvious example being online retail leader Amazon. Having acquired robot manufacturer Kiva Systems in 2012, the e-commerce giant had 45,000 robots working in its logistics centres at the beginning of this year. Robots are now essential equipment in warehouses, and this will soon be the case on the roads as well. The ‘land robots’ made by French firm Effidence have been tested by the French army and are now undergoing testing by parcel delivery specialist DHL and the French and German postal systems.In fact the last mile delivery challenge is driving the creation of an increasing number of startups in Europe and worldwide, examples being Starship Technologies – headquartered in London, but with its engineering operations in Estonia – and Lyon-based firm TwinswHeel. Co-founder Vincent Talon outlines his strategy as follows: “Overall we’re looking at three markets: first, manufacturing and offices, i.e. logistics at closed sites, whether they’re indoors or outdoors. Our second market will be semi-open sites – hospitals, shopping centres, and gated communities. Lastly, we’ll go for the ‘last mile delivery’, which means along the public thoroughfare.” For the moment the directors prefer to self-finance their venture and they can also rely on the support of some front-rank backers as Renault is planning to deploy its first robots in its factories, Siemens at its offices and French railway company SNCF in its train renovation workshops. Last but not least, Nissan is preparing to deploy a TwinswHeel robot at its offices in California. The first ‘pre-series’ robots are scheduled for delivery this month and are then due to be showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January next year.
ROBOTICS AT GRASS ROOTS LEVEL
Robotisation gaining ground in the countryside
“In Europe we are state-of-the-art when it comes to agricultural robotics, with harvesting and ploughing equipment, plus robots for field monitoring.”
Robotics is well established in Europe in the logistics field, but there is another robotics service sector which is very old, very traditional and very European: agricultural robotics. Although it has not made front-page news, France has built up profound expertise in the automated milking systems business. These huge machines might be a long way from our visual notion of humanoid robots, but they are robots nevertheless. Some are able to milk dozens of cows at the same time and thus really automate the milking process. A DeLaval AMR (Automated Milking Rotary) with 24 places on a rotating platform can perform up to 1,600 fully-automatic milkings every day, each machine having five robotic arms. “This is a traditional market, which – although the general public doesn’t know much about it – is in European hands,” underlines André Montaud, adding: “In addition to the dairy application, in Europe we are state-of-the-art when it comes to agricultural robotics, with harvesting and ploughing equipment, plus robots for field monitoring.” One example of the vitality in this sector is Naïo Technologies, a startup which was founded by two robotics engineers when they met an asparagus producer. The idea was to find a solution to the physically demanding work of market gardeners, and at the same time to reduce the use of chemical substances by replacing herbicides by automated mechanical weeding. “OZ, our first electrically powered robot, can weed a plot with a hoeing action,” explains Gwendoline Legrand, Head of Communication at Naïo Technologies, revealing: “The first prototypes were tested in 2014 and we’ve been selling our robots since 2015. At that time, OZ was the world’s first agricultural robot on the market.”
DINO, A STRADDLING ROBOT DESIGNED BY NAÏO TECHNOLOGIES FOR MARKET GARDENS
Since the launch of OZ, Naïo Technologies has sold 70 units through the traditional agricultural equipment sales networks – clear proof that this robot is a tried and tested piece of machinery. Naïo Technologies was initially hosted by the Midi-Pyrénées incubator in the south of France and launched using ‘Love Money’ funds – i.e. capital provided by family and friends – from 40 shareholders, supplemented by a crowdfunding campaign on the Ulule platform. Following a second round of fundraising on the Wiseed and Smart Angels platforms, the Naïo Technologies venture finally attracted substantial French investors in the shape of Emertec, CapAgro and Crédit Coopératif. This third round of fund-raising also received support from French investment bank Bpifrance and BNP Paribas.These successive rounds have enabled the company’s engineers to develop a second, more impressive robot, ANATIS, designed for hoeing vegetable crops growing in open fields larger than ten hectares. Now Naïo is developing, in conjunction with the French Wine Institute (IFV) and the Laboratory for Analysis and Architecture of Systems (LAAS), an arm of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), a straddling robot for use in the wine industry, which will be able to automatically weed five hectares of vines per day. Says Gwendoline Legrand: “We expanded to selling overseas at the end of 2015. We sell in a number of European countries via our specialised dealers – in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, the UK and Belgium. In addition, we’ve started selling outside Europe, for example we’ve sold a robot in New Zealand, and we’ve just signed a partnership to market our robots in Japan."
Health, a promising field for robotics
ROBOTICS GAINING A BOOST FROM THE ‘SILVER ECONOMY’
Another area of service robotics likely to see strong growth in future years is the medical sector, more specifically the deployment of robots to assist healthcare staff or autonomous elderly people. Demand for such robots should grow in tandem with the boom in the ‘Silver Economy’. Japan is investing heavily in robots designed to assist older people in their day-to-day lives and Toyota recently unveiled a healthcare assistance robot.
Here once again however, a number of European startups are already well positioned. Cutii, based in the northern French town of Roubaix, has developed a robot for people aged 75 and over who live alone at home. Explains Cutii Business Developer Anaïs Chartier: “Our venture began with a call from the Eurasanté Bio-incubator for projects making use of new technologies to enable older people to stay on in their own homes. “We won an award and the grant enabled us to work on a Proof of Concept with around fifteen elderly people. The success of this first trial helped us to design a robot that suits their needs even better.”
The first prototype was unveiled at CES 2017 and the startup has now entered into agreement with a manufacturer to make the first set of fifteen robots. These are due to be tested between December 2017 and March 2018, and Cutii is aiming to have its robot on the market by April or May. In order to avoid the cost barrier for purchasing the robot, the fledgling firm has decided to rent its robots out. An elderly person will be able to use the robot at home for €70 a month.
Axilum Robotics’ TMS Robot: VERSION 2
In addition to robots that assist medical staff with their work, which are gradually starting to be seen in hospitals, US firm Intuitive Surgical has already made a name for itself in state-of-the-art operating theatres with its famous Da Vinci Surgical System. Listed on the Nasdaq, the Californian company has already made a number of acquisitions, but the market is still highly fragmented and the arrival of Google teaming up with Johnson&Johnson to create Verb Surgical has not yet made any impact. These highly specialised robots are designed to carry out a specific medical procedure. Bertin Nahum and his company Medtech have become well-known for the Rosa robot designed for brain surgery, while Michel Berg, co-founder and CEO of Axilum Robotics, has developed a robot to carry out Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). He explains: “This is a brain stimulation technique which is often performed manually, placing a conduit linked to a magnetic field generator on the head of a patient. We’ve now developed a robot based on a Proof of Concept from the ICube laboratory in Strasbourg. The robot automates the positioning via a neuro-navigator system using a camera and the patient’s MRI images. We were the first in the world to automate this procedure for treating patients.”
In addition to support from local communities, from the regional authorities and from the Strasbourg City Council, the venture has received financing from a central government fund (the FUI), whose purpose is to support applied research, plus also funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). On the market since 2014, the robot will by the end of the year be up and running in thirteen medical centres. Five robots have been sold in France and twelve overseas, showing that the startup is already making headway on the export front. Says Michel Berg: “The international market is very promising. The United States in particular is a very favourable market because this procedure is already covered by people’s private health insurance. We’re planning to go to the US with the second version of our robot, which we’ll adapt specifically for the US market.” This new version will be launched at the end of 2018, boosting Axilum’s chances of winning over new customers.
Avoiding the ‘Aldebaran syndrome’
There is no doubt that there are many highly talented engineers and ambitious entrepreneurs working in the service robotics sector in Europe, but the issue today is whether Europeans who have developed this technological excellence will manage to scale up and expand to meet the growing overseas demand. The example of Paris-based Aldebaran is a telling one. The originator of the famous public relations robot Nao had to wait until Japanese firm Softbank acquired Aldebaran before its next robot, Pepper, could finally be mass-produced. A number of startups are now looking to compete with Aldebaran/Softbank in the public relations robot market. French companies Hease Robotics and Event Bots are determined to take up the challenge with animated robots of their own design, but no French startup can today aspire to produce tens of thousands of robots in a series, as Softbank Robotics is now capable of doing.
Should European robot designers go to Asia in order to have their robots mass-produced? The current trend among French startups is to take a ‘Made in France’ approach. In this vein, Naïo Technologies has chosen to manufacture its robots in France, a policy that recently led the company to move so as to set up larger workshops able to deal with the planned increase in production. “Our robots are made near Toulouse, at the firm’s headquarters,” explains Gwendoline Legrand. “We had exhausted our production capacity and so we had to move premises in order to set up much larger manufacturing floors. Our policy is to prioritise local manufacture and we have no intentions of taking our production elsewhere. We have a very strong Corporate Social Responsibility ethic, which means that we want to use suppliers closer to home.”
ON TRACK FOR MASS PRODUCTION OF SERVICE ROBOTS IN EUROPE?
Meanwhile Cutii has opted to outsource production of its robots but still places the priority on French-based manufacture. “We looked around in Europe for manufacturing firms that could make our robot and we were agreeably surprised to receive a proposal from a French manufacturer which was competitive from a cost viewpoint,” reveals Anaïs Chartier, explaining: “I should point out that having your products made in Asia presents severe drawbacks in terms of supply timelines and quality control, not forgetting the language barrier. And after all, Asian firms are major competitors of ours, so we decided to keep everything close to home and have our robots made in France.”
European companies have certainly demonstrated that they are competitive when it comes to innovation and company creation in this new robotics sector. Will Europe now be able to step up to mass production? It seems that the future of European service robotics hangs in the balance.