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April 8, 2024 | 5 Mins Read

Are Robots in Field Service on the Rise?

April 8, 2024 | 5 Mins Read

Are Robots in Field Service on the Rise?


At the end of February, I had the opportunity to deliver a keynote address on the future of outcomes-based service at Lely’s North American Care Conference. Lely provides agricultural automation systems, including robotic feeding, milking, and grazing solutions for dairy farms, and I remember the first time I spoke with them about their service transformation journey, I was intrigued by a world of robotics I’d never before been exposed to.

Leaving the conference perhaps I simply had robotics on my mind, but I took note of numerous headlines about how the technology is being used in a wide variety of industries. I even happened upon a story about a robot dog that can do backflips off a skateboard! If that’s a story featured in TechCrunch, isn’t it telling that we should be thinking more about the applications in field service?

Robotics systems of all kinds – humanoid, dog-shaped, and R2D2-style rolling units – have rapidly advanced and are continuing to do so. Robots have become a regular feature of many manufacturing plants, warehouses, and even retail stores. I distinctly remember recording a podcast last year in the United Club in some city being distracted by the robotic table bussing system wheeling around.

Historically, when field service organizations have considered robotics, it has generally been in the context of servicing more complex robotic equipment. Manufacturing plants have deployed increasingly advanced robots on production lines, and companies like Amazon and UPS are designing distribution centers around them, and of course those systems require service at times.

But robots are also starting to pop up in field service environments, including inspection and maintenance applications, begging the question to what degree the autonomous technology will progress in use. Here are some examples of service applications emerging in the robotics space:

The University of Houston has launched a micro-credential course to help professionals understand how robotics and artificial intelligence can be combined for energy infrastructure maintenance. Specifically, AI-powered robots could be used to inspect large and remote energy assets. Inspecting these systems can be dangerous and costly, but a robot equipped with sensors and some decision-making capabilities could quickly spot issues that might need additional human intervention.

Companies in the pest control and landscape management space already use drones for inspecting difficult-to-reach areas, and it seems like autonomous drones could not only be useful in these types of applications, but also in other inspection scenarios. Sending a robot ahead into challenging environments could help service organizations gather information on what repairs or parts will be necessary before sending out a technician, for example.

A company called Gecko Robotics is working with the U.S. Navy to determine how they could leverage robots for ship inspection and maintenance, another application where the size of the job and the dangerous environment seem like the sweet spot for robotic interventions.

Supply chain and staffing issues have made it very difficult for the Navy to roll out a systematic way of planning and scheduling maintenance for ship readiness purposes. Gecko has developed a program called Shipview that uses sensors, LIDAR, and robots to help identify and prioritize maintenance tasks. The Naval Research Lab is also testing robotic dogs to take on maintenance tasks in dangerous or difficult-to-access areas of a ship, and even help with fire prevention and control.

But what about using robots to perform service tasks or repairs? There are fewer examples of robots actually fixing things, but they do exist. There are two companies right now that have created AI-powered robots to wash windows on the world's tallest skyscrapers. While this isn’t applicable to the broad field service category of course, the general concept – an intelligent robot tackling a necessary but dangerous task in a risky environment – certainly is. One system, from Genosar, is a Roomba-like device that suctions onto the window and uses sensors for cleaning. Skyline Robotics, on the other hand, has a system that uses mechanical arms to clean windows. Window cleaning (like service) faces a labor crunch because of an aging and retiring workforce. Robots can address the labor shortage, while also reducing risk and saving money.

In the UK, the University of Liverpool and Hertfordshire County Council are testing an autonomous vehicle that can automatically repair potholes.

Considering Change Management

Those two examples may induce some anxiety among field technicians since they seem designed specifically to replace employees. Field service technicians, however, are unlikely to be replaced by robots because of the mix of flexible decision making, technical skills, unique service situations, and in-person customer service required for the job. That doesn't mean that robots cannot be used for inspection, or to help automate repetitive or dangerous elements of the job. Potential use of robotics, as with any new technology, will require change management and reassurance that tools like AI and robotics aren’t intended simply to replace workers, but to offload work that’s either menial or unsafe. In an industry where talent is in shortage, there shouldn’t be too much angst as there is plenty of work to go around, but don’t take for granted that employees feel secure.

There is at least one potential application, however, where a robot might be doing fairly complex repair work. We all know how expensive a service truck roll is (in the thousands of dollars, depending on the industry). Imagine if you had to send your technician 250 miles – into space? Fixing satellites or parts on the International Space Station is extremely costly, both because of the lack of handy repair parts and the risk involved in sending an astronaut out for a space walk.

This is a big deal for companies and universities that launch minisatellites, which fail at a fairly high rate. So researchers at the University of Sydney are trying to design a robotics system that can repair these satellites in orbit. The system would likely involve sensors, LIDAR, AI, and potentially 3D parts printing. NASA is already in the design review stage for its own robotic repair and refueling system, OSAM-1.

We are only at the early stages of seeing how the integration of AI and advanced robotics is going to play out. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you see robotics playing a role in the future of work in field service. Feel free to email me here.