Published: April 17, 2020


When we published our autonomous robot level classification, we were starting to see a path toward increasingly autonomous robots, but also particularly toward collaborative robotics that work with people to help perform tasks. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, office workers are now sitting at home using remote connections to systems and to one another in numbers never seen before. The essential roles are those that are hands-on with equipment or other people. It is relatively easy to provide remote IT access, but operational technology (OT) is harder. Does the COVID-19 crisis offer an acceleration of emerging technology such as autonomous robots and augmented reality?

The 451 Take

Autonomous robotics is a vast area, merging automation and AI with many use-case-specific implementations. It may be that having robots replace people – which before had a detrimental social implication – becomes a much-needed benefit in the wake of coronavirus. As countries look to establish new economic structures such as universal income, or long-term funded furloughs to help people shield themselves from one another and hence the current viral pandemic, there are still things that need to be done physically by someone or something. An autonomous robot that sterilizes a hospital room is the same robot could potentially sterilize a factory area between shifts. An employee could work with a suitably tooled 'cobot' to avoid human-to-human contact on the shop floor, and the robot could also be cleaned automatically between shifts. Every company must consider what it can digitally transform and what it can automate. This also won't be the last pandemic, so this crisis acts as a wake-up call for everyone to fast-track adoption of useful technology. That includes augmented reality, AI, 3-D printing and autonomous robots.


We have not reached the stage where a free-moving advanced autonomous robot can achieve any general task; this will require significant advances in both mechanical robotics and AI. However, the fusing of existing AI techniques and robotics advances will continue to push through the levels of autonomy we defined. Pre-pandemic lockdown, we asked respondents in 451 Research's Voice of the Enterprise: IoT The Operational Perspective 2H 2019 about autonomous robotics.

Of the 574 respondents, 39% indicated they already had some form of autonomous robot projects related to their IoT initiatives:
Those that have some form of autonomous robotics in their OT IoT operations indicated the types. The vast majority had edge computing-upgraded industrial robots, or just standard industrial robots (the kind that perform repetition and are usually isolated from human workers for safety). However, around one-third of the 214 responses stated they had remote operation tools, and the same number indicated semi-autonomous or guided robots in operation today:
A key question was posed about the future, and to those who had said they were not currently engaging in autonomous robotics. While 43% of the 349 respondents still saw no future use, 41% saw the next one to three years as a time to engage. We can expect those thoughts, which dated back before the virus hit, to accelerate the time scales, and that a significant number who originally said they were not considering it will come on board.

A Future Arriving More Quickly

We are already seeing autonomous robots tackle some of the challenges of the pandemic in medical institutions – such as providing ultraviolet light sweeps of rooms and surfaces as part of a deep clean, hence not putting cleaning staff at risk of infection. Of course, the same technology that is used to clean the infrastructure can also be safely applied to any robot. In buildings, such as hospital delivery, robots can and could be used to ferry equipment and supplies. This was already happening for room service in some hotels pre-pandemic, and is now used to deliver to self-isolating people sheltering there, providing a further safety barrier.

In Milton Keynes, UK, Starship Technologies had been providing an autonomous pedestrian sidewalk robot delivery service. The company started in 2018, and received a $40m series A funding round in August 2019. Other companies are also engaged in this space for the last-mile delivery of food and medicine, something that has started to become a necessity.

In factory settings, although it may not all be about cobots and autonomy, businesses are using the flexibility of their production lines to reconfigure and make products such as PPE (personal protective equipment). Clearly, easily trained robotic equipment that adjusts to a situation is preferable to something that requires a lot of software engineering to repurpose and retool.


It is not easy to digitally transform physical processes, because the world is a complicated collection of unrelated things. For all the office workers now finding the barriers to working from home mostly melting away, we will also see industrial use cases of autonomous robotics and IoT on the rise, as companies mitigate the loss of staff due to lockdowns or self-isolation.
Senior Analyst, Internet of Things

Ian Hughes is a Senior Analyst for the Internet of Things practice at 451 Research. He has 30 years of experience in emerging technology as a developer, architect and consultant through key technology trends.

Paige Bartley
Senior Analyst, Data Management

Paige is a Senior Analyst for the Data, AI and Analytics channel at 451 Research, covering data management, including data integration, data governance, data quality and master data management. She has experience covering a broad range of information management technologies spanning database functionality and self-service analytics to regulatory policy and compliance.

Scott Crawford
Research Vice President, Security

Scott Crawford is Research Vice President for the Information Security Channel at 451 Research, where he leads coverage of emerging trends, innovation and disruption in the information security market. Scott is also a member of 451 Research’s Center of Excellence for Quantum Technologies.

Want to read more? Request a trial now.