Last year has boosted the use of robots across all industries — health care, retail and manufacturing in particular. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed technology to new heights, which helped people stay safe. 2021 will build on these developments while weathering some specific obstacles.

Fortunately, industry leaders are already making strides.

The Challenges for Robotics in 2021

For robotics, it’s time to journey down the road ahead. Primarily, developers and manufacturers will need to focus on increasing the functions of robots, wayfinding skills, energy efficiency, and overall ethics. Then, robots can advance and do meaningful work.

1. Multifunctionality

Robots are functional as-is. They carry out their dedicated tasks, like on an assembly line. Other robots are less obvious, and are more along the lines of software, like a machine that automatically takes a hospital patient’s blood pressure every hour. While these types of robotics are powerful, one function doesn’t cut it anymore.

Multifunctionality is the growing concept that pushes robots to do more. Whether it’s collecting more data, performing more tasks, or catering to more needs, robots that can do more will ultimately result in greater efficiency. For instance, a robotic arm in a production line can assemble two parts of a product instead of one. That’s a step in the right direction.

Alongside more functions, robotics needs more human collaboration, but also within the machines and systems themselves. If they can communicate with one another, they can cut down on lengthy processes.

For example, during warehouse inventories, free-roaming robots can “talk” to convey which items they’ve already accounted for. Elsewhere, one robot can assemble a product and tell another when it’s time to paint it or log it as complete.

2. Mapping

Some robots operate in place while others perform on a set track. But what about the ones that have a full range of motion?

Currently, the automotive industry is focusing on driverless vehicles. These cars will use GPS mapping to drive passengers around. Unfortunately, achieving these mapping abilities is easier said than done.

Uber recently abandoned its plans for driverless vehicles. On a more positive note, the technology itself wasn’t the primary issue with Uber. Instead, the legal and financial logistics were the major obstacles.

On smaller scales, robots need to learn how to navigate without pre-programmed maps. A warehouse will look different daily, with common objects acting as impediments. If the machine learning within robots evolves enough, they’ll be able to get around with less and less guidance.

For both mapped and unmapped robotics, there are a few helpful improvements to come. Robots must improve their reasoning and association skills through richer algorithms. That way, they can label certain objects as obstacles and learn to interact more safely with others.

3. Sustainability

The pandemic exposed and heightened a few public health and environmental issues.

First, lockdowns reduced pollution because people weren’t commuting and factories weren’t running as much. This change showed that rapid climate action is possible. Second, pollution worsens public health because it increases mortality rates from the virus.

Part of what makes robotics so innovative is the field’s knack for improving all kinds of efficiency, whether it’s work-wise or in terms of sustainability. Moving forward, it’s vital that robotics developers take the environmental route. These steps include using longer-lasting materials and less power.

To reduce regular and electronic waste, manufacturers should focus on recycled materials. Metals, plastics, circuits — these objects will pile up in landfills but are still useful with the right recycling and refurbishment processes. Plus, they’ll be cheaper than buying new ones.

In 2021, it’s also more important than ever to use sustainable energy like solar or wind. Battery technology must improve, but it’s getting there. Lithium-ion batteries are the norm now, but more sustainable options like lithium-sulfur are slowly coming into play.

4. Ethics and Privacy

Last but certainly not least, ethics and privacy are growing concerns among the government and the general public. Tech, especially the factors that go into robotics, requires sensitive data. It gathers business information and, at times, private consumer data. Catering to consumer needs especially — through ad targeting and customization — can get companies in trouble.

If a cybercriminal gets access to the data that a specific robotics system uses, they could steal or corrupt it. Then, the company will be liable for that consumer or business data. To curb this potential theft, companies must comply with cybersecurity protocols in their state or territory, as well as any states or territories in which they conduct business.

However, the key necessity moving forward is a federal-level compliance law, since the United States currently does not have one.

Then, ethics is on the other side of protecting consumers. AI has faced numerous ethical controversies over how organizations handle the data that certain platforms use. For instance, police facial recognition AI has shown racial biases by disproportionately targeting black individuals. These kinds of biases cannot show up in the AI that robotic systems run on.

Innovations Showing the Way Forward

Though these challenges may require new methods, some robotics are already making strides forward. Some ideas are more theoretical than others, but all are steps in the right direction. From social to medical, robots have vast potential when it tackles even just one of the above obstacles.

Submerged machinery is one field of robotics that covers many practical functions, like allowing the elderly to exercise and improve their health without harsh impacts, or submersible drones inspecting public infrastructure.

The health care field has been incorporating new forms of robotics for several years. These devices are multifunctional, and since medical professionals must ensure privacy, they focus on security, too. New robotics work with surgeons to operate on a range of procedures. In the future, they may perform on their own.

As another idea for the future, industry professionals can expect to see a more personalized form of robotics coming soon. “Social” robots take into account a range of human needs. These ‘bots can theoretically take walks with senior citizens and monitor their health. They can educate younger students, and they can provide general entertainment.

Ultimately, once the industry tackles the previously mentioned obstacles this year, the possibilities become endless.

The Year of Robotics

Although there are many miles ahead, 2021 is off to a promising start. With better functionality, mapping, sustainability, ethics, and privacy, robotics as a whole can solidify itself as a game-changer in every facet of life.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Boss Magazine. The original article can be found at https://thebossmagazine.com/new-obstacles-for-robotics/)