Smart ro­bots re­port for ser­vice

Af­ter industrial ro­bots, do­mes­tic ma­chines for pro­fes­sional, per­sonal use ma­te­ri­al­ize as la­bor costs rise in China’s ag­ing so­ci­ety

China Daily (USA) - - BUSINESS - By MASI masi@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Se­cu­rity of­fi­cer AnBot, on pa­trol at the Shen­zhen Bao’an In­ter­na­tional Air­port, stands out from other se­cu­rity of­fi­cers at the scene. They are tall — and cool. In con­trast, AnBot is just 1.5 me­ters in height and portly, oval-shaped. But it’s AnBot that at­tracts fliers’ and oth­ers’ at­ten­tion. AnBot is no or­di­nary se­cu­rity of­fi­cer. It is China’s first “ro­bot cop”, pressed into ser­vice in Au­gust.

The smart ma­chine can move on wheels at a max­i­mum speed of 18 kilo­me­ters per hour. Equipped with four cam­eras, it can au­to­mat­i­cally mapthe best routes for it­self to move, com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple, rec­og­nize and track faces. When its bat­tery is about to die, it can find the near­est charg­ing pile to recharge it­self, which en­ables it to pa­trol non­stop for eight hours.

More im­por­tantly, in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, hu­man of­fi­cers can re­mote-con­trol the ro­bot to dis­able or dis­arm a tar­get. Ac­cord­ing to the Shen­zhen Mu­nic­i­pal Public Se­cu­rity Bureau, AnBot can pa­trol 24 hours a day and is of great help at the air­port, which is short-staffed.

The smart ma­chine, de­vel­oped by China’s top mil­i­tary acad­emy, the Na­tional Univer­sity of De­fense Tech­nol­ogy, is part of the coun­try’s broad ef­forts to de­velop ser­vice ro­bots for both pro­fes­sional and per­sonal use, amid the dual chal­lenges of an ag­ing so­ci­ety and ris­ing la­bor costs.

“Though China be­came the big­gest mar­ket for industrial ro­bots as early as in 2013, its ser­vice ro­bot in­dus­try is still at a very early stage,” said Luo Jun, CEO of the Asian Man­u­fac­tur­ing As­so­ci­a­tion.

In 2014, 212,590 units of ser­vice ro­bots were sold in China, ac­count­ing for less than 5 per­cent of the global mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to the Shen­zhen­based For­ward Busi­ness Re­search In­sti­tute.

But that is chang­ing rapidly, partly fu­eled by strong pol­icy sup­port from na­tional and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, and ris­ing de­mand from China’s swelling mid­dle class.

In April, the Min­istry of In­dus­try and In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy un­veiled an am­bi­tious plan to sell more than 30 bil­lion yuan ($4.6 bil­lion) worth of do­mes­tic ser­vice ro­bots by 2020, to meet the de­mand from the health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, en­ter­tain­ment, med­i­cal and de­fense in­dus­tries.

“If you ask me to de­scribe the de­vel­op­ment of China’s ro­bot­ics in­dus­try in one word, I’d choose ‘ex­plo­sion’,” said Zhao Jie, a pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at the Harbin In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Ac­cord­ing to him, in­vest­ments and tal­ent are rush­ing into the in­dus­try, with the in­volve­ment of gi­ants as well as star­tups. In line with the trend, the Harbin In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s startup HIT Ro­bot Group was launched in 2014, in part­ner­ship with the Hei­longjiang pro­vin­cial govern­ment.

The top-notch univer­sity has done years of cut­ting-edge re­search into ro­bots. It is the maker of China’s first space ro­bots and lu­nar ve­hi­cle. One of its pri­or­i­ties now is to de­velop ser­vice ro­bots for pro­fes­sional use, such as de­fense ro­bots.

Some of its anti-ter­ror­ism ro­bots, which can sniff out bombs, climb slopes, mon­i­tor en­vi­ron­ment and op­er­ate guns, have been ex­ported to coun­tries in the south­ern hemi­sphere al­ready, an em­ployee at HIT Ro­bot said.

“Uni­ver­si­ties and en­ter­prises are work­ing closely on the re­search and de­vel­op­ment of ro­bot­ics tech­nol­ogy, which is push­ing China’s ser­vice ro­bot in­dus­try for­ward,” said Hao Yucheng, deputy di­rec­tor of

the China Ro­bot In­dus­try Al­liance.

Ac­cord­ing to him, the pro­fes­sional ro­bot in­dus­try is in­vest­ment-in­ten­sive, highly risky and gen­er­ates slow re­turns. Any break­through de­mands long-term ef­forts. Short­sighted strate­gies will lead to fail­ure, he said.

Zhe­jiangUniver­sity, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Nan­jiang Ro­bot­ics, a startup that was set up in 2014, un­veiled China’s first four-legged ro­bot Chitu that can jump and run at last fort- night’s third World In­ter­net Con­fer­ence in Wuzhen, Zhejiang prov­ince.

The mid-sized, spi­der-like Chitu can walk up­stairs step by step, just like hu­man be­ings, and can carry a load of up to 50 kg.

“In­fu­ture, Chitu can be used to carry goods in earth­quakestricken ar­eas and out­doors where the roads are pretty bumpy,” said Li Chao, a mem­ber of the re­search team who is from Zhejiang Univer­sity.

Avac­u­um­robot out­sold TVs to emerge as the top-selling elec­tronic ap­pli­ance on Alibaba Group Hold­ing’s Tmall.com on Nov 11, China’s an­nual Sin­gles Day on­line shop­ping fes­ti­val.

On­line sales of DeeBot, the au­to­mated vac­uum cleaner de­vel­oped by Eco­v­acs Ro­bot­ics Co Ltd, gen­er­ated 200 mil­lion yuan ($29 ml­lion).

Such en­cour­ag­ing con­sumer re­sponse is pulling new play­ers into the in­dus­try. Xiaomi Corp, which has evolved from a smart­phone maker to a tech gi­ant, un­veiled an au­to­mated vac­uum cleaner in Septem­ber.

This “ex­plo­sion” of ser­vice ro­bots is spawn­ing un­likely uses be­yond house­holds, in places like ceme­ter­ies. In cen­tral He­nan prov­ince, a ceme­tery de­ployed a hu­manoid ro­bot in Oc­to­ber to es­cort fe­male pa­trol guards on night duty, lo­cal me­dia re­ported.

Win­nie Tang, a found­ing mem­ber of Hong Kong Pro­fes­sion­als and Se­nior Ex­ec­u­tives As­so­ci­a­tion, anor­ga­ni­za­tion to pro­mote com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the Chi­nese main­land and Hong Kong, said in a col­umn for South Chi­naMorn­ing Post that there are three stages in the evo­lu­tion of the ser­vice ro­bots in China: tool, gov­er­nor and com­pan­ion.

“China is still at the “tool” stage, where ro­bots are mainly used to do house­hold chores. To progress, the coun­try must en­ter the “gov­er­nor” and “com­pan­ion” stages, where the main ob­jec­tive is so­cial in­ter­ac­tion,” she added.

the sales of au­to­mated vac­uum cleaner DeeBot on Alibaba Group’s Tmall.co­ma­lone

ZHU XINGXIN / CHINA DAILY

A visitor in­ter­acts with ro­bots at the Third In­ter­na­tional In­ter­net Fo­rum in Wuzhen, Zhejiang prov­ince, on Nov 15.

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