Managing the entire robotics software value chain is undesirable for both robotic solution vendors and client organizations. Developing and maintaining software solutions—notably for robotic navigation, fleet management, control, and machine vision—is an intensive and costly task, which often amounts to reinventing the wheel. Several robotics navigation Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) vendors have recently entered the market with disruptive Intellectual Property (IP) that will penetrate automation verticals and challenge existing Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and in-house software management paradigms.
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New Entrants Rush to Usurp LiDAR SLAM with Innovation Software
A previously published ABI Insight, “Vision as the Future of Perception for Mobile Robotics” concerned the market positioning of Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (vSLAM) versus Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM). That work highlighted the relative advantages and disadvantages of vision-based systems versus LiDAR—concluding that the accuracy and reliability of dual systems, using a combination of Three-Dimensional (3D) LiDAR and stereo cameras yields far superior SLAM results. The cost of LiDAR systems, poor reliability of vision solutions, along with the high compute of both, indicates that neither of the two sensors were poised to capture the Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) market alone.
However, a recent spate of startups now aims to champion vSLAM with disruptive, university-spun-out, software Intellectual Property (IP). Primarily targeting AMRs in the warehousing and Third-Party Logistics (3PL) sectors in Europe and North America, this emerging group of companies aims to challenge the long-standing paradigm that all of a robotics solutions’ functionality must be developed and managed in-house.
The following companies are bringing vSLAM innovation to market via Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) revenue models:
- Slamcore: Spinning out from Imperial University in 2016, London-based Slamcore offers high reliability, low-compute vSLAM solutions for forklifts, AMRs, and Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs).
- RGo Robotics: Having exited “stealth-mode” in May 2022, this Israeli startup specializes in vSLAM, along with Artificial Intelligence (AI) value adds for scene segmentation.
- Sevensense. This best-in-class vSLAM vendor spun out of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, in 2018. Sevensense specializes in a modular navigation system that can be added to any mobile robot.
- Artisense: Founded in 2016 as a spin-off of the Technical University of Munich, Artisense specializes in vSLAM and sensor fusion.
- Opteran: Founded in 2020, this U.K.-based spin-out of the University of Sheffield has created novel IP based on the work of its neuroscientist founders. Opteran will begin its first commercial deployment in 2024 and boasts low compute requirements and ultra-low memory mapping for its solutions.
Most of the companies listed above offer solutions that are “sensor agnostic,” meaning customers can chose which hardware to incorporate, allowing Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) a high degree of agency and control over their Bill Of Materials (BOM). Further, these companies offer full Service Lifecycle Management (SLM) for their solutions, reducing the support burden of robotics vendors.
Robotics manufacturers may also be sensing a sea-change. In April 2023, ABB launched its vSLAM solution for AMRs that boasts a 20% reduction in commissioning time and positioning to within 3 millimeters.
Warehousing Ripe for SaaS
Warehousing and 3PL remain fertile ground for automation. ABI Research’s recent Smart Warehousing market data (MD-SMWH-103) forecasts that the number of robotic warehouses—facilities dependent on Automated Storage and Retrieval (AS/AR)—is likely to increase six-fold between 2023 and 2030; a sizable addressable market for AMR integrators. Further, ABI Research forecasts that SaaS sales will grow from US$6 billion in 2023 to US$30 billion in 2030, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 26%.
The emerging trend of outsourcing enabling software components for automation solutions (be they navigation, mapping, or Machine Vision (MV)-augmented functionality such as picking and palletization) is growing in popularity among robotics vendors. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) deploying and managing complex facets of a robot’s functionality, such as navigation, is a considerable burden on vendor companies and often bloats business models, hampering horizontal growth; and 2) following installation is the long-tail of Service Lifecycle Management (SLM), which requires a customized understanding of a client’s needs and the rooting out of deployment edge cases—problems best solved by third-party specialists. The symbiotic relationship between robotics hardware vendors and software providers allows the former to focus on expansion.
The sensor-agnostic and highly-performant solutions brought to market via emerging vSLAM vendors may create the de facto standard for robotic function as SaaS. Vision startups possess the following advantages: closely guarded IP prevents the rapid duplication of disruptive algorithms; remote exception fixing is simpler for a software solution than hardware; and long-term support provided by vendors and compatibility with cheap sensors promotes horizontal growth and reduced BOM.
No Need to Reinvent Navigation
As the demand for warehouse automation grows, new vendors will enter the market in need of navigation solutions. Through open-source software libraries, much of a robot’s core functionality is readily available for integration into commercial products. However, open-source software does not provide 24/7 helplines, nor the specialist engineering knowledge required to integrate software into an automation solution along with regular software updates to ensure a software library is compliant with regulation and compatible with ever-evolving secondary libraries. Moreover, for many Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), the burden of recruiting and training software engineering teams to maintain additional aspects of a solution’s functionality is untenable. ABI Research believes that stakeholders should consider the following points:
- Consider vSLAM over LiDAR: Emerging vSLAM vendors offer a decrease in the BOM for robotics manufacturers, while simultaneously providing a highly robust and performant sensor solution with perpetual support and maintenance.
- Improved vSLAM May Result in Camera Sales Surpassing LiDAR for Robotics: Currently, the superior accuracy and reliability of LiDAR compared with cameras has led ABI Research to conclude that LiDAR attach rates will continue to surpass visual cameras beyond 2030. Disruptive software developments may challenge this forecast.
- SaaS for Robotics Functionality Will Achieve Greater Market Penetration: Although this ABI Insight has focused on vSLAM, SaaS vendors are enjoying success targeting other automation value chains. For example, Dexterity AI and Mech-Mind are two vendors that partner with robotics manufacturers to create MV-based market offerings to increase the functionality of industrial robots.
- Strategic Partnerships with Systems Integrators and OEMs Are Vital for Robotics SaaS Success: Software integration and system deployments remain pain points for all robotics solutions. For SaaS vendors, comprehension of the software architecture of the automation solution they wish to augment may only be possible through OEM partnerships. Systems integrators with knowledge of a deployment’s edge cases can create a seamless channel to market.