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Telepresence Robots: Are They Right for Your Business?

Telepresence Robots: Are They Right for Your Business?
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Mobility has come to telepresence and that’s opening up a wide range of uses for business.

A telepresence robot is a remote-controlled, wheeled device that can travel around virtually any space. Wirelessly connected to the internet, it can provide video and audio capabilities — often using nothing more than a tablet.

The market and use applications for telepresence robots are developing rapidly, according to a report by Tractica. The research company predicts that shipments of this innovative tool will total nearly 100,000 units by 2020.

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"The telepresence robot is the next stage of evolution beyond stationary video conferencing," said Tractica principal analyst Wendell Chun about the research. "These new systems take advantage of existing telecommunications infrastructure as well as recent advances in robotics technology. The core enabling technologies for these robots are already widespread in the market, with costs on a steady downward trajectory, and no significant barriers to broader levels of adoption in the years to come."

According to Wintergreen Research, the market for telepresence robot devices and systems will reach $7 billion by 2022. That's a huge increase when compared to the market's size of $825 million in 2015.

So what do businesses need to know right now about this emerging technology?

Applications

Like its stationary cousins, telepresence robots are being used for business collaboration and communication in the enterprise. But, judging by the organizations who are already piloting and using telepresence robots, the only limits to potential uses of the technology is the level of business creativity and vision.

Healthcare — Hospitals and medical centers are using telepresence robots to give patients access to medical specialists located around the globe. Doctors can visit homebound patients and hospitals.

Education — For teachers who can't be in the classroom or students who aren't mobile, both can be present in the classroom without actually being there by taking advantage of telepresence robotic technology.

Business Trips — Imagine saving the costs of business travel between remote offices for executives and managers. They can still have face to face encounters with employees without the hotel and airfare.

Entertainment and Destinations — Tours of historic sites, museums and other venues can be conducted by a professional guide who is present via telepresence robot. The Mob Museum in Las Vegas invested in a BeamPro robot from Suitable Technologies to allow people with physical disabilities to enjoy remote tours. It's not a big leap to consider remotely enjoying a concert, sporting event or other entertainment via telepresence robot.

Potential downsides

Depending on how a business plans to use a telepresence robot, you'll need to consider security as well as the environment in which the robot will travel. Robots cannot traverse stairs or call elevators without human assistance. Corridors and doorways can be a problem for some devices.

Most devices don't yet move at human speed, either. The devices need power, of course, and many aren't particularly power efficient. So be sure to check out all these factors before investing in a fleet of devices.

Where to acquire a telepresence robot and system

The technology that drives even entry-level business or consumer-grade telepresence robots is easily available. Some devices need only a tablet and software. Basic models can be viewed and purchased from retailers such as Amazon and Sharper Image.

But for companies for whom security is a top concern and those who have in mind more sophisticated uses, the search for a vendor becomes a little more challenging. There are dozens of manufacturers and software developers in the telepresence robot space. Here are a few examples:

Suitable Technologies’ Beam+ is designed for in-home uses, like mobile video chats, oversight of children and elderly people and to remotely monitor residential security.

Revolve Robotics’ Kubi is designed for health, education and business uses, such as providing education access to hospitalized K-12 students and "beaming" psychologists into schools.

iRobot’s Remote Presence Virtual and Independent Telemedicine Assistant is designed for use in hospitals, making it possible for doctors to consult with patients, guide staff and confer with other physicians and medical professionals.

Double Robotics’ Double integrates a wheeled base and iPad and is designed for the business environment. Telecommuters can be present in the office without ever setting foot outside their homes.

In general, telepresence robots and the applications that run them can range from $500 for a consumer model to thousands of dollars for business grade devices with industry-specific applications that include encryption and other security features.

What's coming next?

In February, Mashable reported that Google filed a patent last year for a telepresence drone that could be used by remote workers to teleconference with colleagues indoors. The drone's projection system could allow remote workers to project videos and images, enabling collaboration.

A telepresence drone could overcome some of the mobility challenges grounded robots face but are we ready for flying telecommuters? Only time will tell.