The View From Asia

Asia's brave new world of robots

Robots and machines are set to transform the way people live, interact and work with each other. Here are excerpts from articles in Asia News Network papers.

Towards a robotic generation


A group of Shenzhen entrepreneurs has taken the country's robot industry by storm with a desk-based robot arm that can perform jobs with top accuracy, and which can be controlled by mobile devices, human voice or gestures.

DoBot is always ready to help, whatever task it's given.

"DoBot, add some sugar and milk to my coffee," orders his master. It twists its body round, picks up a spoon, scoops up a spoonful of sugar and milk respectively from two bottles, and pours the ingredients into the cup.

"DoBot, I want a picture like this." The "little artist" takes up a paint brush and within minutes, the creation is done.

It is so considerate that it can even read one's mind. But it has no thought itself. It gets the information by analysing the intensity of one's brainwaves.

A robot picking up a business card during a display earlier this month in the Chinese port city of Dalian. In 2013, 36,560 industrial robots were sold in China, making it the world's largest robot market.

DoBot is a metallic desk-based robot arm devised by five young entrepreneurs in Shenzhen.

"The desk-based robot arm is not well-developed in our country right now," says Mr Liu Peichao, founder and chief executive officer of Shenzhen Yuejiang Technology, which created DoBot.

"DoBot retains the functions of an industrial robot and, at the same time, takes the professional machine onto the desk."

The most important feature that enables DoBot to play the role of an industrial robot is its high precision. It is able to move freely with a repeated repositioning accuracy of 0.2mm.

"This level of accuracy means that DoBot can perform a task as precise as writing or drawing," Mr Liu explains.

The accuracy of an industrial robot, which costs more than 100,000 yuan (S$22,375), can normally reach 0.02mm.

"Although DoBot's accuracy cannot be compared to that of a professional one, it can at least satisfy general needs in industries," says co-founder of the company Lang Xulin, adding that DoBot retails at US$500 (S$ 710) .

According to the International Federation of Robotics, the compound average growth rate of robot sales from 2008 to 2013 was 9.5 per cent annually. In 2013 alone, global robot sales reached 178,132 units and the industry has been developing even faster in China. Over the same period, the total supply of industrial robots rose by roughly 36 per cent every year on average, pushing the country to the top spot.

In 2013, 36,560 industrial robots were sold on the Chinese mainland, making it the world's largest robot market.

Mr Liu's original vision was to make an industrial robot. But fierce competition in the industry and daunting costs deterred him. He decided instead to create a desk-based robot arm first and develop his products step by step.

"Right now, at the basic level, we want to build our brand.

"We hope DoBot could first come to users' mind when they think of high-precision robot arms," says Mr Liu.

Development and research of DoBot started from a small apartment, which the entrepreneurs borrowed from one of their friends. "We had no money at that time," says Mr Lang. "Every step was tough for us."

For the entrepreneurial team, DoBot is not created to serve only as a robot capable of replacing or entertaining people. It carries a much bigger mission - facilitating creations for makers and educating a younger generation.

"All our software codes are open-sourced. Makers can explore all the possibilities and make inventions by using our technology," says Mr Lang.

The entrepreneurs are also dedicated to promoting robotics education among young people.

They are currently cooperating with Shandong University and Xi'an University of Architecture and Technology by bringing their products into the classroom.

"A lot of university students are unfamiliar with robots. They have no idea of what it is or how it works. We hope to increase understanding in this field," says Mr Lang.

The start-up has already secured investments worth millions of yuan, but Mr Lang still feels heavy pressure from competitors on the trail.

"Many other companies are also doing the same thing as us. We are making every effort to maintain the high quality of every product we produce and strive to stand out in the industry," Mr Lang says.

Developing robots for Japan's industries


Research institutes and universities in Japan are developing robots to play an active part in agriculture and fisheries, which are suffering from ageing workers and a lack of manpower.

The robots are intended to alleviate the farmers' workload and improve the quality of crops.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry has spent about 1.2 billion yen (S$14.2 million) since spring to support the development of 17 kinds of robots to reduce agricultural workloads.

Professor Eiichi Yagiof Wakayama University is developing a "wearable assist suit" for agricultural work.

When the 7kg suit is worn, sensors attached to its arms and legs can detect the angle of the user's joints and also the stress felt on the body.

The motors attached to the chest and thighs then activate to reduce stress on the lower back.

When lifting a box weighing 20kg, the user would feel as if the box were at least 10kg lighter than the actual weight, according to Prof Yagi.

The National Agriculture and Food Research Organisation, headquartered in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, is currently testing a car-like weeding robot.

A one-by-one-metre auto body, remotely operated, uses two blades to cut weeds on an 800 sq m plot within an hour.

The robot can even work on a 40-degree slope.

Robots are also being developed for the dairy and fishery fields.

A milking robot being developed could monitor cows' health

and their optimal breeding schedule by checking the hormone levels in the milk.

The Fisheries Research Agency is developing a robotic fishing boat that selects the safest and most efficient sea course and then automatically sails to the fishing area.

•The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'TheViewFromAsia Asia's brave new world of robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe