The Year In Review: 2020

First Thoughts

2020 was a chaotic year. I don’t think any of us wish to repeat it. It started out pretty normal, but then the COVID-19 pandemic swept in and turned everything in our lives upside down.

This article takes a look at the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) market and some of the key stories that happened with mobile robotics in 2020.

The pandemic had its greatest influence primarily in how it reshaped the lives of consumers, forcing them to work from home, shop from home and modify their behavior in public to stay safe. We’ll long remember 2020 for face masks and the 2 meter (or 6 ft) social distancing rule.

Hugs and handshakes were no longer socially acceptable. Business trade shows and travel were cancelled. Eating out was severely curtailed in many cities and towns across the world.

And remote work and Zoom conference calls became standard practice (If you didn’t lose your job outright).

Year in Review: 2020

According to Adobe Analytics, Cyber Monday 2020 was the largest online shopping day in U.S. history hitting a record $10.8 billion, beating the previous $9.4 billion record set during Cyber Monday 2019.

With an abrupt turn to online shopping, some of the biggest financial headlines in 2020 were all about the growth in e-commerce and the impact that it had on retail commerce, supply chains, warehouses and logistics solutions around the globe.

One of the notable AMR statistics that The Mobile Robot Guide reported on from this year was that in January 2020, Locus Robotics reported their 100 millionth pick. This was after SIX years in operation.

Then, 11 months later, Locus announces their 250M pick in December 2020. So it took Locus six years to get to their 100M pick and only eleven months to get to their 250 millionth pick!

This amazing milestone demonstrates the momentum that a company like Locus has been able to achieve during – and one might stay “in spite of” – the pandemic year.

Year End Podcast Episode: The Mobile Robot Podcast

Listen to our related podcast interview where host Mike Oitzman and Steve Crowe, editor of The Robot Report, discuss the biggest news stories of 2020.

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2020 Investment Review

Let’s review the investment data for the AMR market in 2020:

2020 fundraising by AMR market pie chart

Figure 1 – 2020 Fundraising by AMR Market summary. This chart lists the amount of money raised in 2020 as organized by the primary market of the AMR company that received the funding. (Source: MRG Market Tracking Data, 2020)

Breaking down the various market segments as shown in Figure 1, the top investment sector for AMR companies in 2020 was warehousing solutions with a total of investment of $447M.

This was followed by the material handling sector at about half that: $230M.

Next was the sensors market – this includes primarily LiDAR companies at $130M.

From here the market breaks down into the smaller segments that include:

  • AMR-related software-only companies at $72M.
  • Floor care at $60M.
  • Disinfection solutions at $44M.
  • Legged robotics at $42M.
  • And then the rest of the market.

The total value of AMR-related investments that we tracked in 2020 was $1.1B

The following table summarizes the investment data for 2020:

Market SUM of Amount Raised ($M USD)
Warehouse $447.0
Material Handling $229.2
Sensors $131.8
Software $72.3
Floor care $59.0
Disinfection Robots $43.6
Legged Robotics $42.0
Teleoperation $40.0
Hospitality $32.0
Service $25.0
Battery Charging $5.7
Agriculture $4.5
Warehouse, Drone $2.5
RaaS $1.2

A Majority Of Investment Went To Expansion

If we break the investments down by the phase of the investment, then Figure 2 (below) illustrates where the investment money went as categorized by the investment series:

2020 Investments by series

Figure 2 – This chart illustrates the 2020 investments summarized by the type of funding event (source: MRG tracked deals in 2020)

In 2020, a large chunk of the investment money within the warehouse market and the material handling market went into companies like Geek Plus, Seegrid, Vecna and Locus Robotics. All of these companies have matured to the point that they are expanding their sales and support channels worldwide as the AMR technology for warehousing and material handling is “across the chasm” (as defined by Geoffry Moore in the technology adoption curve theory) and expanding into established organizations.

The other notable investment area this year was in the response to the pandemic and all of the innovation that occurred this year to design, build and deploy disinfection related solutions. Again the total investment in disinfection solutions that we tracked in the market, and some of it wasn’t made public, was around $44M. Most of that was venture or seed funding for these companies.

Looking at the year, month by month, it was a pretty flat year, with the average investment total at about $100M per month. There were two spikes, one in June, with the Geek Plus announcement and the other in August with several $50M+ funding announcements.

2020 fundraising by month

Figure 3 – This chart illustrates the month-over-month deal flow by total amount funded. (Source: MRG deals tracked in 2020)

Biggest Acquisition Story Of 2020: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics Spot and Atlas with Hyundai Logo

The biggest acquisition of an autonomous mobile robot company was announced in December 2020. Hyundai Motor Company announced that it had acquired a controlling interest in Boston Dynamics in a deal that was worth $1.1B (USD). Boston Dynamics is a high profile robotics company that has had two prior owners. They have gained publicity over the years with some incredible videos of their solutions as the technology has matured. But things finally got serious this year as their four legged robot, SPOT has gained acceptance in a variety of real world applications like construction and industrial inspection. This is what caught the eye of Hyundai.

We think that this video best illustrates the joy that Boston Dynamics is feeling after the acquisition was announced:

Notable Data Points From 2020

Looking at the overall AMR market there are some interesting data points from 2020.

First of all we’re now tracking more that 850 individual vehicles or solutions from more than 350 vendors. And this number is still shy of the actual total since we’re still not counting all of the specific payload configurations that integrators and payload solution providers have developed and are selling in the various regions around the world. Our intention in 2021 is to get a handle on this data and continue to expand our database.

Second, the amount of investment in 2020, in spite of the global pandemic and significant political turmoil with the US election year, shows that this market is growing. Venture capital continues to flow into this market and acquisitions like the Boston Dynamics story illustrate how far the solutions have come. The move towards series C investments and the rise in IPOs for many of the LiDAR companies in 2020 show that the market has an appetite for capital investment moving forward.

Chart of AMR vehicles by segment

Figure 4 – This chart illustrates the number of individual vehicle models by market segment as classified in the MRG database (source: MRG Robot Market)

Biggest Story of 2020: The Rapid Rise of Autonomous Disinfection Solutions

If we go back to January 2020, I am not sure that any one could have predicted the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the global economy.

One of the predictions that we had generally for 2020 was that solutions would become the predominant way that AMR vendors go to market. This is in contrast to the “platform play” than many AMR vendors had been following for the prior decade.

For 2020, that primary solution and innovation happened around disinfection, specifically UV light and biocide spraying applications built on a foundation of an Autonomous Mobile Robot. These solutions are designed to autonomously disinfect a room or a facility, and to do so without putting front line workers at risk of COVID-19 exposure.

In response to the pandemic and the emergence of specific autonomous solutions to combat the pandemic, we started our COVID Resource page.

In April 2020, we published the first AMR Buyers Guide for Disinfection Solutions. Since that first edition we have updated the Disinfection Solutions Buyers Guide with technical data on more than 50 different autonomous and manual disinfection solutions. This Buyers Guide includes the market leader, UVD robotics, and other solutions built on top of existing and proven platforms like Fetch, Omron and MiR Robotics. There are now disinfection solutions available in every every region worldwide and in price points ranging from $10K to $75K.

Finally, almost every AMR platform provider has at least one disinfection solution in the market based on their mobile platform. The biggest winners here have to be OMRON and MiR, as they both have an extensive, worldwide integrator networks who are building custom disinfection payloads/solutions around their platforms.

The Mobile Robotic Software Market Heats Up in 2020

The other prediction that we made for 2020 was that the battle for dominance in AMR software would heat up. We watched this trend evolve throughout the year.  Software companies used their “downtime” (with the lag in the market due to the pandemic) to invest their software engineering resources during the pandemic in developing new features.

Now, at the end of the year, we have several companies who are jockeying to take on the market and dominate the market in 2021 with new software and AI-related innovation.

While ROS remains the dominant open-source software OS for AMR companies who are building and delivering new solutions, there are several companies like Bluebotics, Brain Corp, Vecna and ASI Robotics who are delivering full stack automation solutions for any mobile machine.

Other innovation in software is coming in  remote operations and fleet management. This remains a function that nearly every AMR company has to attempted to design and engineer from scratch. A new working group called, “The Robot Operations Group” (ROG) was formed this year and is a place for the creation of best practices for developing and deploying AMR software. We covered this in a story in October, which is where you’ll find all of the details if you’re interested in joining the ROG.

And we’ve also seen the growth of Robot Operation software companies like ROCOS,  InOrbit and Formant. These companies are attempting to deliver a secure, cloud-based solution for remote operations and remote incident management for any generic and heterogeneous fleet. Not only are they targeting end user corporations who have a large estate and fleet of robots to manage, they are also making the business case for new AMR companies to leverage their solutions rather than re-engineer this functionality from scratch.

Well, that wraps up our look back at the year that was 2020.

Let’s hope that 2021 is a year with fewer dramatic headlines, we can all use a return to some state of normalcy.

Happy New Year!

mike oitzman headshot.
Written by

Mike Oitzman

Mike Oitzman is Senior Editor of WTWH's Robotics Group, cohost of The Robot Report Podcast, and founder of the Mobile Robot Guide. Oitzman is a robotics industry veteran with 25-plus years of experience at various high-tech companies in the roles of marketing, sales and product management. He can be reached at