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$100bn robotics opportunity

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Since the first robot went into operation in 1961, the use of them has evolved from motor plants to other industries like the semiconductor area. DR JON HARROP believes the their use will continue to grow into a $100bn industry.

The first industrial robot, Unimate, went into operation at a General Motors plant in 1961. Over the next few decades the use of industrial robot arms in the automotive industry matured. More recently, the use of industrial robot arms in the cleanroom environments of the semiconductor and electronics industries also matured. The market for such traditional industrial robots is now worth around $11bn and continues to grow slowly. The technology is largely unchanged with modern industrial robot arms generally employing minimal sensors and no real intelligence. But a revolution is coming, as detailed in “Robotics 2016-2026”, the brand new report by IDTechEx Research which explores the future of robotics, applications, technologies and markets.

A variety of independent technological advances in batteries, power electronics, motors, sensors, processors, artificial intelligence and other fields are now creating an environment where robotics can finally surge ahead in many different ways, solving a wide variety of problems that traditional industrial robots could not possibly have solved. The single biggest trend will be mobile robotics. Over the next decade the statically-mounted robots of today will become a minority as next generation robots travel across the ground, in the air and even across oceans and in space. Autonomous unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) will transfer goods not only within warehouses but down highways alongside conventional passenger vehicles and around mines and quarries with only minimal human intervention as well as harvesting crops and mowing our lawns. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will bring internet access to millions of people in remote locations, bring emergency medical attention to those in need and monitor and dust our crops. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) will be used to mine the ocean floors for precious minerals and coast guards around the world will employ autonomous robotic lifeboats for search and rescue.

Although mobile robots will be the single biggest trend, static robots will still continue to evolve. Surgical robots have already made inroads in some specific laparoscopic procedures but many companies are bringing more surgical robots to market for different kinds of operations. The worldwide push for STEM education has robotics as a core topic. What were expensive high-end machines a few decades ago will be modularised into interoperable parts (joints, end effectors and so on) and commoditized as they are mass produced cheaply in East Asia. This will make robotics affordable for everyone, facilitating the teaching of robotics in schools and the development of next-generation robots by hobbyists.

Societal megatrends will play into robotics. The ageing population will benefit not only from surgical robots, lab robots for medicine and robotically-manufactured replacement bionic parts but also service robots designed to help the elderly at home. Everyone will benefit from personal robots that vacuum the house, mow the lawn, clean the pool and automate other mundane tasks such as cleaning the BBQ grill.

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Many robots will serve multiple functions. Internet-enabled robotic vacuum cleaners for the home are already being empowered with security responsibilities as they are able to photograph unusual changes in the home, such as an intruder, and send the images to the home owner.

All of these sectors in robotics will grow to overshadow traditional industrial robot arms. Over the next 10 years we expect the worldwide market for robots to reach over $120bn. Some of these sectors will grow much more quickly than others and some will grow only at specific times. For more information see the brand new IDTechEx Research report “Robotics 2016-2026” at www.IDTechEx.com/robotics.

* Dr Jon Harrop, Director, IDTechEx

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When will we stop calling them phones?

If you don’t remember when phones were only used to talk to people, you may wonder why we still use this term for handsets, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, on the eve of the 10th birthday of the app.

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Do you remember when handsets were called phones because, well, we used them to phone people?

It took 120 years from the invention of the telephone to the use of phones to send text.

Between Alexander Graham Bell coining the term “telephone” in 1876 and Finland’s two main mobile operators allowing SMS messages between consumers in 1995, only science fiction writers and movie-makers imagined instant communication evolving much beyond voice. Even when BlackBerry shook the business world with email on a phone at the end of the last century, most consumers were adamant they would stick to voice.

It’s hard to imagine today that the smartphone as we know it has been with us for less than 10 years. Apple introduced the iPhone, the world’s first mass-market touchscreen phone, in June 2007, but it is arguable that it was the advent of the app store in July the following year that changed our relationship with phones forever.

That was the moment when the revolution in our hands truly began, when it became possible for a “phone” to carry any service that had previously existed on the World Wide Web.

Today, most activity carried out by most people on their mobile devices would probably follow the order of social media in first place – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all jostling for attention – and  instant messaging in close second, thanks to WhatsApp, Messenger, SnapChat and the like. Phone calls – using voice that is – probably don’t even take third place, but play fourth or fifth fiddle to mapping and navigation, driven by Google Maps and Waze, and transport, thanks to Uber, Taxify, and other support services in South Africa like MyCiti,  Admyt and Kaching.

Despite the high cost of data, free public Wi-Fi is also seeing an explosion in use of streaming video – whether Youtube, Netflix, Showmax, or GETblack – and streaming music, particularly with the arrival of Spotify to compete with Simfy Africa.

Who has time for phone calls?

The changing of the phone guard in South Africa was officially signaled last week with the announcement of Vodacom’s annual results. Voice revenue for the 2018 financial year ending 31 March had fallen by 4.6%, to make up 40.6% of Vodacom’s revenue. Total revenue had grown by 8.1%, which meant voice seriously underperformed the group, and had fallen by 4% as a share of revenue, from 2017’s 44.6%.

The reason? Data had not only outperformed the group, increasing revenue by 12.8%, but it had also risen from 39.7% to 42.8% of group revenue,

This means that data has not only outperformed voice for the first time – as had been predicted by World Wide Worx a year ago – but it has also become Vodacom’s biggest contributor to revenue.

That scenario is being played out across all mobile network operators. In the same way, instant messaging began destroying SMS revenues as far back as five years ago – to the extent that SMS barely gets a mention in annual reports.

Data overtaking voice revenues signals the demise of voice as the main service and key selling point of mobile network operators. It also points to mobile phones – let’s call them handsets – shifting their primary focus. Voice quality will remain important, but now more a subset of audio quality rather than of connectivity. Sound quality will become a major differentiator as these devices become primary platforms for movies and music.

Contact management, privacy and security will become critical features as the handset becomes the storage device for one’s entire personal life.

Integration with accessories like smartwatches and activity monitors, earphones and earbuds, virtual home assistants and virtual car assistants, will become central to the functionality of these devices. Why? Because the handsets will control everything else? Hardly.

More likely, these gadgets will become an extension of who we are, what we do and where we are. As a result, they must be context aware, and also context compatible. This means they must hand over appropriate functions to appropriate devices at the appropriate time. 

I need to communicate only using my earpiece? The handset must make it so. I have to use gesture control, and therefore some kind of sensor placed on my glasses, collar or wrist? The handset must instantly surrender its centrality.

There are numerous other scenarios and technology examples, many out of the pages of science fiction, that point to the changing role of the “phone”. The one thing that’s obvious is that it will be silly to call it a phone for much longer.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube
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MTN 5G test gets 520Mbps

MTN and Huawei have launched Africa’s first 5G field trial with an end-to-end Huawei 5G solution.

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The field trial demonstrated a 5G Fixed-Wireless Access (FWA) use case with Huawei’s 5G 28GHz mmWave Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) in a real-world environment in Hatfield Pretoria, South Africa. Speeds of 520Mbps downlink and 77Mbps uplink were attained throughout respectively.

“These 5G trials provide us with an opportunity to future proof our network and prepare it for the evolution of these new generation networks. We have gleaned invaluable insights about the modifications that we need to do on our core, radio and transmission network from these pilots. It is important to note that the transition to 5G is not just a flick of a switch, but it’s a roadmap that requires technical modifications and network architecture changes to ensure that we meet the standards that this technology requires. We are pleased that we are laying the groundwork that will lead to the full realisation of the boundless opportunities that are inherent in the digital world.” says Babak Fouladi, Group Chief Technology & Information Systems Officer, at MTN Group.

Giovanni Chiarelli, Chief Technology and Information Officer for MTN SA said: “Next generation services such as virtual and augmented reality, ultra-high definition video streaming, and cloud gaming require massive capacity and higher user data rates. The use of millimeter-wave spectrum bands is one of the key 5G enabling technologies to deliver the required capacity and massive data rates required for 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband use cases. MTN and Huawei’s joint field trial of the first 5G mmWave Fixed-Wireless Access solution in Africa will also pave the way for a fixed-wireless access solution that is capable of replacing conventional fixed access technologies, such as fibre.”

“Huawei is continuing to invest heavily in innovative 5G technologies”, said Edward Deng, President of Wireless Network Product Line of Huawei. “5G mmWave technology can achieve unprecedented fiber-like speed for mobile broadband access. This trial has shown the capabilities of 5G technology to deliver exceptional user experience for Enhanced Mobile Broadband applications. With customer-centric innovation in mind, Huawei will continue to partner with MTN to deliver best-in-class advanced wireless solutions.”

“We are excited about the potential the technology will bring as well as the potential advancements we will see in the fields of medicine, entertainment and education. MTN has been investing heavily to further improve our network, with the recent “Best in Test” and MyBroadband best network recognition affirming this. With our focus on providing the South Africans with the best customer experience, speedy allocation of spectrum can help bring more of these technologies to our customers,” says Giovanni.

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