Robots in the cloud: How robotics-as-a-service can help your business

Companies are now offering robotics-as-a-service to help customers with management tasks.

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Anyone who's familiar with cloud computing might know about software-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service, and other "as-a-service" delivery models. But they might be not be aware of the latest iteration: robotics-as-a-service (RaaS).

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RaaS also leverages the cloud, and makes it possible for organizations to integrate robots and embedded devices into the web and cloud computing environments. This capability will become increasingly important as robots become more common in work environments such as warehouses, distribution centers, and stores.

With RaaS, data captured by robots -- such as customer preferences or inventory status -- can be stored on a cloud-based system and retrieved as needed by human workers. This type of service can provide even more value if a company is operating a fleet of hundreds of robots, each performing a variety of tasks.

The RaaS provider could handle maintenance of the robots as well as integration between the robots and databases used across the enterprise. The advantages of this model, much like with cloud services in general, can include cost savings, easier management and scalability, and greater flexibility.

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Currently the term "robotics-as-a service" is used to describe two separate robotics approaches, said Dan Kara, ‪practice director for robotics at research firm ABI Research.

First there is RaaS as a technical method. Often referred to as "cloud robots," it includes internet-connected robots using cloud based, pay-as-you-go, computational and data storage resources.

RaaS is also the term applied to business models where robotics systems are rented on a monthly or quarterly basis, with often with technical support, real-time monitoring, and other services included.

Technical- and business-oriented RaaS approaches are often combined, Kara said.

The emergence of RaaS reflects the broader move to services-based models in technology.

"The general trend among many technology providers is a long-term migration away from selling products to selling services beyond the usual incremental revenue from support, maintenance and upgrades charges," Kara said. "Services are recurrent revenue, and are looked on favorably by both technology providers and the investment community. Like the technology sector at large, suppliers of robotics technologies have adopted robotics-as-a-service business models and this trend is accelerating."

Both users of robotics technologies and robotics suppliers benefit from RaaS business arrangements, Kara said. "Service-oriented solutions are not uncommon in the robotics sector, where the high cost of platforms and risk aversion to new technologies and applications can impede growth," he said.

In addition, for some types of robotic systems a business model that relies on hardware sales is untenable, even if there are charges for maintenance, upgrades, customization and so on. There are also technical reasons for the RaaS approach, Kara said. For example, the computational resources available for a given robot might be inadequate for the task at hand. In this case, a cloud robotics approach might be suitable.

Robotics companies that employ a RaaS business model typically offer emerging technologies whose value proposition and total cost of ownership are largely unknown. Kara said.

Representative companies employing a RaaS business model include PrecisionHawk (drone-based surveying for agriculture), Knightscope (robots for security and surveillance), Aethon (mobile robots for healthcare logistics), InTouch Health (mobile robotic telepresence), and Liquid Robotics (unmanned underwater vehicles).

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