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World Robot Population Reaches 8.6 Million

Here's an estimate of the number of industrial and service robots worldwide

4 min read
World Robot Population Reaches 8.6 Million

World robot population 2009The world’s robot population from 2006 to 2008.Image: IEEE Spectrum

The world’s robot population has reached 8.6 million. That’s more than one automaton for every citizen of Austria (or, according to Boing Boing, the number of Americans who participated in Pilates last year).

I arrived at the 8.6 million estimate based on data from the latest edition of World Robotics, a report prepared annually by the International Federation of Robotics, or IFR. The report came out late last year (I finally had time to take a look at it) and refers to the robot market up to the end of 2008.

So how are robots doing compared topreviousyears?

First, some nomenclature. The study divides robots in two categories: industrial robots and service robots. The first category includes welding systems, assembly manipulators, silicon-wafer handlers—i.e. the kind of big, heavy, expensive, many-degrees-of-freedom robots typically found in factories. The second category consists of two subcategories: professional service robots (bomb-disposal robots, surgical systems, milking robots) and personal service robots (robot vacuums, robotic lawn mowers, all sorts of robot kits and toys).

As you can see from the chart above, the number of industrial robots grew to 1.3 million in 2008 from about 1 million in 2007, and service robots grew to 7.3 million from 5.5 million. So for industrial and service robots combined it’s a 32 percent increase from 2007 to 2008, and that’s huge.

That said, it’s important to understand what these numbers mean. The World Robotics report doesn’t add up industrial and service robots; the report keeps these two categories separate because, I believe, these are very different robots in terms of complexity and cost: An industrial robot can be a multimillion dollar manipulator (like the Kuka KR 1000 Titan, below), while a service robot can be a $50 dollar toy robot.

Another reason to keep them separate: The total numbers for each category mean different things. The total of industrial robots is for “’worldwide operational stock,” or robots that are actually operational today. On the other hand, the total of service robots consists of units sold up to the end 2008, which includes robots no longer in operation—like that first-generation Roomba you harvested for parts long ago.

So why did I add up the numbers? Well, because I think it’s interesting to have a number for the world’s robot population.

kuka robotics kr 1000 titan

Now on to some highlights from the report. First, industrial robots.
  • According to the report, 2008 sales reached 113,000 units, which is about the same as the previous year. It’s a weak result, and the culprit, as you might have guessed, is the global economic meltdown.

  • A breakdown by region. Of the 2008 robot sales, more than half, or about 60,300 units, went to Asian countries (including Australia and New Zealand). The world’s largest market, Japan, continues to see a decline, with supply falling by 8 percent to about 33,100 units. But Korea and emerging markets like China and the Southeast Asian countries and India saw increases in sales, with Korea adding 11,600 robots, up 28 percent from 2007, China adding 7,900 units, an increase of 20 percent, and Taiwan’s robot acquisitions surging by 40 percent.

  • In the Americas, the robot market grew by 17,200 units, or 12 percent less than in 2007. Auto industry, the main robot buyer, retreated and robot sales plunged.

  • Robot sales in Europe stagnated at about 35,100 units, with Germany taking the lead, adding 15,200 robots, 4 percent more than in 2007. Italy, Europe’s second largest market after Germany, added 4,800 units and France, 2,600 robots.

  • So the total of industrial robots in 2008? First, a number that I hadn’t seen before. The report says that "total accumulated yearly sales, measured since the introduction of industrial robots in industry at the end of 1960s, amounted to more than 1,970,000 units at the end of 2008." That’s basically the total of industrial robots sold in the world. Ever. Cool! So to get the total of industrial robots in operation you need to remove the ones that have been taken out of service. People use different statistical models to do that, arriving at different numbers. The World Robotics report gives an estimate between 1,036,000 and 1,300,000 units.

  • Still according to the report, world industrial robot sales amounted to about US $6.2 billion in 2008. But this amount doesn’t include cost of software, peripherals, and system  If you were to add that up, the market would be some three times larger, or around $19 billion.

irobot roomba

Now on to service robots.
  • First, some more nomenclature. The World Robotics report differentiates between two kinds of service robots: service robots for professional use and service robots for personal use. That’s because the personal ones are sold for much less and are mass produced.

  • According to the report, 63,000 service robots for professional use were sold in 2008, a market valued at $11.2 billion.

  • A breakdown by application: 30 percent (20,000 units) for defense, security, and rescue applications; 23 percent for milking robots; 9 percent for cleaning robots; 8 percent each for medical and underwater robots; 7 percent for construction and demolition robots; 6 percent for robot platforms for general use; and 5 percent for logistic systems.

  • As for service robots for personal use: 4.4 million units sold for home applications (vacuuming and lawn mowing bots) and about 2.8 million for entertainment and leisure (toy robots, hobby systems, and educational bots).

  • And here’s an eye opening number: In 2008 alone about 940,000 vacuum cleaning robots (like the iRobot Roomba 562 Pet Series above) were sold, almost 50 percent more than in 2007. That’s 1 million new living rooms getting cleaned by robots!

  • Finally, a forecast. The report estimates that 49,000 professional service robots and 11.6 million personal service robots will be sold between 2009 and 2012.

A note about this last bullet point. If we get this forecast and add it up to a little over 1 million industrial robots (their growth is relatively slower), we’d get a grand total world robot population of nearly 13 million by around 2011 or 2012. That would mean one robot for every person in Zambia. Or Illinois.

As usual, a special thanks go to the IFR statistical department folks for putting this report together.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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