These four big trends are driving the robotics industry

The variety is stunning at one of the biggest automation conferences in North America, but these themes are consistent.

It's all about the robots this week in Santa Clara, Calif., where one of North America's biggest automation conferences, RoboBusiness, is underway.

There's plenty of hardware to geek out over -- including a pair of robotic legs that emulate the human gait and a version of the Mars rover with a robotic arm.

Aside from a chance for industry insiders to size up the competition, the conference is designed as a place for robot makers to show people from a variety of industries, some of which have never had an option to automate, how the latest generation of robots can help them.

The selling points vary from booth to booth and speaker to speaker, but four trends have emerged that pretty well encapsulate what's going on in robotics these days, and why the industry is growing so fast.

User experience

This is the big one. Robots have typically required advanced training to operate, which is a huge barrier for small operations, such as mom-and-pop fabricators. But a new generation of robots can be programmed on the fly, often simply by demonstrating a task or inputting a few commands on an iPad.

Affordability

Industrial robots used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, smaller collaborative robots are priced for companies to receive ROI in months instead of decades, often costing around $20,000. Falling sensor prices and increasing adoption have helped lower costs.

Size and Shape

A lot of collaborative robots, which is a class of task-agnostic robots that work alongside humans on light manufacturing lines, fit on a workbench or counter. Compare that to the hulking industrial Goliaths of yore and it's easy to see why robots are entering more industries than ever.

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Agility by Cassie Robotics

Developer-friendly

Setting up the development environment and associated tool chain is a huge barrier in hardware development. But roboticists embraced the open-source ethos early on. The Robotic Operating System (ROS) dominates the industry and has provided turnkey solutions for a wide variety of robots, such as Vector from Stanley Robotics, which hauls materials around semi-structured environments like factories or warehouse. It's hard to overestimate how crucial the open-source framework has been to driving growth in the industry.

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