Robotics and Drones for Security: The Market Opportunity for Autonomous Solutions

[Editor’s Note: This is the continuation of a series of articles examining each of the trends identified in SIA’s annual Megatrends Report for 2023. Each year the report is a highly anticipated look at the most significant trends driving operations in the physical and connected security space. The articles will appear approximately monthly throughout 2023 exploring each of the megatrends detailed in the report and tap the expertise of SIA members in applicable areas. Drones & Robotics returned to the Megatrends list this year as organizations increasingly find operational value in addition to their core security applications.]

Robotics and drone solutions are driving a great deal of curiosity in the security market, but what’s the real impact and where does this market go next? At the Security Industry Association (SIA), we asked these questions to members of our Autonomous Solutions Working Group, a volunteer-led consortium of companies and individuals specializing this technology segment. Our goal was to understand how these cutting-edge autonomous solutions, which were recognized as a 2023 Security Megatrend, are poised to reshape the security industry.

Market Adoption and Progression

Steve Reinharz, chair of the SIA Autonomous Solutions Working Group and the founder and CEO of Artificial Intelligence Technology Solutions (AITX), described the market adoption by corporate security practitioners in terms of the technology adoption life cycle that groups buyers as innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. For robotics and drone solutions, he said, the market is right at the start of the “innovators” segment of adoption.

“The industry, from our perspective, is just so ripe for technological innovation,” said Reinharz. “Literally every ingredient required for traditional disruption and reinvention exists in the security market industry right now.”

And while the technology segment is in the earliest phase of adoption, others say there are real signs that progress is happening.

“The market is more comfortable with the idea of incorporating robots around their employees and patrons,” said Stacy Stephens, executive vice president and chief client officer of robotics firm Knightscope. “[We are] definitely seeing the demand increase, driven by crime, labor market challenges and increasing labor costs.”

Travis Deyle, CEO of Cobalt Robotics, indicated a changing mood also. “Sentiment among end users, guard companies and integrators has shifted dramatically in the last two years – from ‘The technology is cool; we might someday eventually use robots and drones’ to ‘Now is the time to investigate these solutions, because they can legitimately solve some of our most pressing problems’.”

Impact on Guard Services Market

Many in the industry initially thought that drones and robots were just tools to replace security officers, but many who are manufacturing such solutions say that’s not necessarily the case and that robotics and drones are more likely to augment the human security officer, or allow that human to focus on analysis and investigations rather than being focused on repetitive tasks that don’t tap the intelligence humans can provide.

“My belief is that drones and robots are only going to augment human capabilities,” said Quang Trinh, professional services manager for Axis Communications, “and, with AI applied, [these solutions] will provide even more context and information in a scene that will be vital to the operator or driver of the system.”

Still, most in the industry do think that some job replacement is inevitable and that guard services firms will inevitably embrace robotic solutions.

“Guard companies have an acute problem, and they’re well aware of it,” said Cobalt’s Deyle. “Guards are getting more expensive, the overall ‘product’ isn't going to get any better and customers are demanding more for less. The result: Guard companies recognize that technology is a necessary solution, and they're generally much more receptive today than they have been in the past. Five years ago, a senior guard company executive told me, ‘Robots will never provide security services.’ Last year he said, ‘We must adopt robots or perish.’”

“However, the ‘innovator's dilemma’ is real,” continued Deyle. “Guard companies must be willing to sacrifice their own top line to deploy technology and enhance their bottom line – this means slashing guard hours and changing sales incentives. Very few guard companies have committed to this shift.”

There are some clear indications that guard services companies are beginning to adopt robotic solutions, and AITX’s Reinharz said that the guard services companies have become his largest channel for going to market.

“This is beginning to increase,” added Knightscope’s Stephens, “but guard service firms still appear to be more focused on human services (guards) than technology.”

How the Pandemic Changed the Market

One thing is certain, the pandemic changed the security industry permanently, increasing adoption for touchless, frictionless solutions and driving further interest in automated and autonomous solutions.

“The pandemic clearly accelerated the interest in and adoption of autonomous solutions,” said Jeff Dickerson, head of sales for robotics firm Sunflower Labs. “Not only did it exacerbate the difficulty of hiring and maintaining a guard response, but it also decreased the desire to have person-to-person contact.”

Knightscope’s Stephens concurred, noting that her firm saw increases in robot adoption as companies “began looking outside the box for ways to protect their assets without having to require people to venture into the public.”

Cobalt’s Deyle said the pandemic didn’t change robots, but that it “fundamentally changed how businesses manage and operate their geographically distributed facilities – everything from changing real estate footprints, in-office and remote work forces to managing security remotely as a byproduct of travel restrictions.”

“This ‘action at a distance’ forced practitioners into a technology-first mindset to support remote operations,” Deyle said. “This shift in mindset makes products like robots, GSOC automation and automated alarm response extremely timely – especially when you consider the cost implications in this macroeconomic climate.”

Going Beyond Security With Drones and Robotics

Many working in this market sector are finding that conversations with end user buyers need to embrace more than security applications, and many companies that have adopted robotics have done so to handle things like repetitive manufacturing processes or automation inside major distribution warehouses (Amazon’s distribution center robots famously bring shelves of products to human packers, rather than requiring human employees to pull items from aisles of shelves).

As robotics firms go to market, they’re often leading with the non-security applications first.

Mark Schreiber, the principal at Safeguards Consulting, a South Carolina-based consulting firm that works closely with many leading practitioner security teams, said that if done right, robotics solutions take a “team approach” to support operations.

“Security needs to be part of the team, and we've seen some of the more advanced thought leaders in this area are actually bringing [those operational capabilities].”

“Robotics has a great deal of intelligence that it brings that supports operations,” said Schreiber, and he said it’s often the overlap of benefits that will get end users’ attention. He points to examples of robotics that can handle both concierge services and emergency communications.

Knightscope’s Stephens reported similar interest. “We frequently find ourselves guiding clients to think beyond security,” Stephens said. “Policy enforcement, engagement with employees and visitors, providing site specific information, etc., are effective examples of such [applications beyond security].”

At Cobalt Robotics, Deyle said, “physical security remains our core economic stakeholder, but we specifically provide capabilities and benefits for all of shared services: security, facilities, environmental health and safety and human resources. By way of example: Our robots perform facilities observation tours, looking for things like leaks, spills, overflowing trashcans, personal protective equipment, OSHA violations and the like. We also automatically create as-built floor plans and 3D models of the space that provide extreme utility to facilities groups.  On the HR side, our robots provide ‘virtual reception’ capabilities for HR at remote locations where dedicated human receptionists are not an option.”

While visitor applications have been an early area of high adoption, when Axis Communications’ Trinh looks to the future, he sees applications that could be even more central to facility operations.

“An example is using drones or robots to automate a daily routine path to capture data in a facility,” Trinh said. “This facility could, for example, be a substation where a human needs to inspect gauges and other instrumental readings on a daily basis. This environment could be a very high-risk location and requires a lengthy process for a human to execute this task. The process can be automated at scale with a drone or robot that can prevent putting someone in harm’s way and still provide efficient data with image verification of the same human inspection task. AI models can then be used to interpret these readings, compare them against other sensor data and only report on anomalies, where a human will re-verify and take action.”

Sunflower Labs’ Dickerson likewise sees the strong opportunity for drones and robotics to take upon the most dull, dangerous or dirty of tasks.

“One example of how an autonomous drone has been useful beyond a pure security application is in the safety of people around blast sites on mines. The importance of surveying and identifying if any people authorized or unauthorized remain in the blast zone before the explosion has clear value and drives the adoption of autonomous drone solutions.”

One thing is clear: The market is in its early stages, but there are strong opportunities to grow the solutions, whether using the guard services channel or the security integration channel (SIA has a free e-book on how security integrators can add robotics and drone solutions to their portfolio). Dual purposing of these technologies is expected to be the norm in the future, and it’s likely to be that operational benefit that gets autonomous solutions in the door with prospective clients.

Growing activity in the application of drones and robotics by security professionals will receive significant attention at the upcoming ISC West in Las Vegas later this month. In addition to a dedicated area on the expo floor for companies to demonstrate the most advanced drone and robotics technologies, at least three separate educational sessions will examine new trends and challenges using drones for security.

One that will cover an enormous amount of ground and provide a thorough overview of how drones can be used in security operations by businesses and governments will be led by Cobalt’s Deyle. Past, Present, and Future of Robots & Drones for Physical Security will examine the technology and operational considerations driving today's adoption, use cases and deployment models and provide attendees a chance to interact and address their concerns on the subject.

For more information or to register, please visit ISC West’s website.