2015 Robotics – Year in Review

2015 Robotics – The Year in Review


2015 was a meteoric year of change and rapidly expanding horizons in robotics. We report here on the most important developments of the year in these categories: drones, DARPA humanoids, artificial intelligence (AI), collaborative and social robots, robot vacs, and space exploration. Moreover, with insight and commentary from Frank Tobe of TheRobotReport.com, we look at the business side of robotics.

--Tom Atwood, Executive Director


First and foremost, 2015 was the year of the unmanned aerial system (UAS). Controversies small and large have been surprisingly many. One was simple terminology – are these new flying platforms Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), RC aircraft or simply “Drones”?  Mass media and the FAA adopted the word “Drone”.

A jurisdictional turf squabble erupted when the Academy of Model Aeronautics asked its nearly 200,000 members in the RC airplane arena to not register with the FAA pending a legal appeal. The AMA stated, “The central issue is whether the FAA has the authority to expand the definition of aircraft to include model aircraft; thus, allowing the agency to establish new standards and operating criteria to which model aircraft operators have never been subject to in the past.” This remains unresolved as we enter the new year.

The rush of newly FAA-compliant recreational drone owners included 45,000 registrants by December 21st, just two days after registration commenced at http://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/. No wonder, with heavy federal criminal sanctions imposed on any owner not registering by February 19, 2016.

As reported by David Place, NPS Research Associate / C3F UAS Advisor, on his NAVY blog, david.d.place@navy.mil, the avalanche of drone developments continued until the very end of the year, with, for example, Product Hunt's announcement of its KittyHawk 2.0 UAS management software, and PASSUR Aerospace's announcement of an Unmanned Aerial System Drone Traffic Management Integration service designed to help commercial operators of drones become integrated into PASSUR's aviation intelligence platform for safe and legal operation in the national air space.

Alas, the cacophony of controversies was further heightened with an evident clash, as reported by UAS Vision, between FAA rules and regulations and the scores of relatively stricter local rules being enacted in towns, cities, counties and states nationwide.


June 5 – 7, in Pomona, CA, 25 intrepid teams from around the world attempted to complete one of four disaster courses in a multi-day epic humanoid robotics competition. The robots had to open doors, traverse rubble and even drive cars. Awards went to: Team Kaist (Korea), first, with its robot DRC-Hubo, $2 million; Team IHMC Robotics (Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, USA), second, with its robot Running Man, $1 million, and, Tartan Rescue, third, (Carnegie Mellon University, USA), with its robot CHIMP, $500,000. All lovers of science fiction were delighted by this extraordinary event.


Perhaps the next biggest thing in 2015 was the question of Artificial Intelligence, which soared to new heights of controversy. Will we be able to create automatons with human-like intelligence, and if we do reach this “Singularity”, will we be able to live with sentient robots or will they present a mortal danger to humanity? The controversy raged, with intellectual titan Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor who established the basis of modern linguistics, having previously set the stage in a now famous Youtube half hour interview disavowing the possibility of the so-called Singularity:    The Singularity is Science Fiction! On the opposing side, concerns of the dangers of AI had been acknowledged by British physicist Stephen Hawking, and were reiterated in 2015 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, among many others.

Whether robots will continue to gobble up jobs that traditionally employ humans remained a matter of fierce debate. These discussions intensified in 2015 as IBM Watson computers continued their work programming other generations of computers as well as offering financial projections and advice, and medical consultations to physicians looking at patient's profiles to facilitate diagnoses. This potential concern about losing jobs to robots was highlighted best at year's end by endgadget's report on Boston Dynamics robot quadrupeds, who handily took the jobs of Donner and Blitzen, pulling Santa's sleigh! 

On a very positive 2015 note, an influential group of Silicon Valley leaders announced that they had committed a billion dollars to launch a program in San Francisco titled "OpenAI". The goal is to advance "digital intelligence in a way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate a financial return." Elon Musk is an OpenAI co-chair and strong program advocate.


More buzz than ever was in the news on robots assisting people with home lawn mowing, gutter clearing, window scrubbing, charcoal-grill cleaning and even planning their day. The latest social robot, Breazeal's Jibo, arrived on the scene. Will Jibo stand out from the crowd? Frank Tobe, an analyst and publisher of The Robot Report, thinks it will. He calls Jibo a “game changer in the new social robot marketplace,” noting that the company has assembled a talented team of experts not only in robotics but also in speech recognition, human-machine interaction, gaming, and animation. One other factor that helped sell Tobe on Jibo: He showed a promotional video of the robot to his wife, who afterward declared that “any device that can order Chinese food”—a scene shown in the Jibo video—“is a winner.“

And squeaking in at the end of the year, was Amazon's Echo, an internet-connected wireless speaker with an embedded personal assistant named Alexa. This avatar is said to show uncanny talent in understanding it's owner's spoken words.

On the industrial assembly line side, 2015 saw new players including Rethink Robotics' new 7-axis Sawyer arm designed for material handling, board testing and machine tending, and Fanuc's CR-35iA robot arm that can work alongside humans on larger-scale assembly line tasks.


New robot vacuum releases continued with multiple announcements by year end of Wi-Fi enabled models that will map your house and send you a full cleaning report for perusal on your smartphone app at your leisure. But prepare to pay. Notable was iRobot's fairly pricey $900 Roomba 980 and NEATO's $700 Botvac Connected.

The year was not without sad news. It was reported that a Volkswagen worker was killed by a malfunctioning or improperly programmed production line robot in Europe. And, the father of assembly line industrial robotics, Joseph F. Engleberger, passed at the age of 90, on December 21.

The Mars rovers found evidence of a watery past and a combination of robots orbiting above showed that Mars presents salt water flows in current times. NASA announced that a human mission to Mars is on the books, and advanced robots will be our partners.

We also received our first images of Pluto from the New Horizons space robot! This was a big deal.






We thank Frank Tobe of TheRobotReport.com for providing the following overview of the business of robotics in 2015. For an expanded discussion of world robotics business, we highly recommend that you examine the reporting and graphic, global drill-down options at TheRobotReport.com. There, you will learn in detail about robotics businesses, start ups, university programs and so much more.  Frank notes that 2015 was an abundant year for funding new uses of robotics:

  • Over $1.2 billion (with a "B") was invested in more than 50 robotic startups during 2015 - an Excel list is available from Frank upon request

  • More than that was involved in 29 acquisitions:

  • Universal Robots was acquired by Teradyne for $350 million

  • Adept Technologies was acquired by OMRON for $200 million

  • Spectacular online sales drove companies like Amazon, Alibaba, FedEx, DHL and UPS to new records and new uses of robots:

  • Amazon now has over 30,000 Kiva robots working in their U.S. distribution centers

  • Over 180,000 robotic vacuum cleaners sold via Alibaba on a single holiday in November

  • Governmental programs in China are driving a boom in robotics even while the general economy is slowing

  • Much of the business side of the industry is reported in The Robot Report and its archives. Click over to The Robot Report and check it out!

Frank Tobe
The Robot Report
Tracking the business of robotics