SEOUL, KOREA – A patient was in Strasbourg, France and operating surgeons were in New York. Despite thousands of miles away from the patient, the doctors in the U.S. successfully removed the gallbladder of a 68-year-old woman by guiding the movements of a three-armed robot in Strasbourg though a telecommunications circuit. The procedure took 54 minutes and the patient was recovered without complication. The world’s first ‘telesurgery’ using surgical robots was performed in 2001. Last year, doctors at the seminar on ‘the Operating Room in 2030’ stressed the important role of robotics in the future operating room. Surgeons will do their jobs from anywhere in the world, and they will use robots as an extension of their hands and to perform operations from afar. In another 20 years, there may be more robots than doctors in the operating room.
Imagine the office when everyone is gone for the day. Although there is no one, your computer still does your job. That’s the basic idea behind a growing trend in today’s factories called ‘lights-out’ manufacturing. This refers to factories which turn off lights as they are fully automated and require no human presence on-site. An increasing number of factories are replacing workers with industrial robots for better productivity, more safety, and cost reduction. According to World Robotics 2011, the total worldwide number of industrial robots at the end of 2010 was around 1.3 million units. FANUC, the Japanese robot manufacturer, is one of “lights out” factories. Robots are building other robots at a rate of about 50 per day and can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time. “Not only is it lights-out but we turn off the air conditioning and heat too,” says the vice president.
Today, robots are not only seen in hospitals and factories. They are everywhere. Robots perform many of the same jobs as humans such as caring for the elderly, teaching and playing with children, cleaning houses, and also saving lives in disasters. If the Internet was the technology of the past and mobile is today, the next big thing will be robots. Bill Gates says that the emergence of the robotics industry is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago. Now, the United States is leading the world in robotics but global competition is picking up. Plenty of other nations see the incredible potential in robotics.
South Korea is one of a few countries which have national industrial strategies for robotics. Since robotics was included in the list of main national R&D projects in 2003, the Korean government has been working hard to support private companies in the robotics industry. They established Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement (KIRIA) as part of its efforts to improve the global competitiveness of the robotics industry. The organization was created in 2010 to unify policies and resources to take the lead in the robotics industry. KIRIA is responsible for policy planning, industry analysis, cooperation network, quality certification, and market creation.
Korean robotics industry
Joo Doug-Young, President of Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement sees the prospects of the Korean robotics industry from an optimistic point of view. “Above all, the Korean government seems to have a strong willingness to promote the industry. Along with the central government, congressmen and local governments have shown a great interest in supporting robotics research and industrial applications. Since 2002, the government began investing 1 trillion won (USD 900 million) mostly in research and development in the robotics industry.” Now, ten years of efforts seem to be paying off. World Robotics 2011 report stated that Korea was the most dynamic market worldwide as robot sales tripled to 23,500 units in 2010. The industry saw a rapid growth of 75% last year and 30% in 2010. Currently, Korea is ranked 4th, following the U.S., Japan, and Germany in terms of the industry size.
Korea has surprised the world by developing robots specializing in different tasks over the years. As part of an effort to keep students competitive in English, the English-teaching robot was developed in Korea where some 30,000 foreigners stay to teach English. The robots can speak to students, read books to them and dance to music by moving their heads and arms. They were selected as one of Time’s 50 Best Inventions of 2010. Last year, Korea rolled out robotic prison guards which move on four wheels and programmed to monitor inmates for abnormal behavior. As they help reduce the workload for guards, it is believed that the field has the potential to become a major export industry.
“Usually in other sectors, too many subcontractors are supplying to very few large companies. Since they are pressured to cut their cost because of unbalanced supply and demand, they may have a financial burden. However, in the robotics industry, Small and Medium Enterprises have received relatively more investments from the government compared to other sectors and developed technical capabilities to be globally competitive. With SMEs having high technical skills, the robot communities - the industry, universities, research institutes, and governments– can have more fair and cooperative relationship,” he continued.
Joo added “the public also has a great interest in the robotics industry. Last year, Gwacheon National Science Museum opened the Robot Hall to the public to glimpse into the future of the Korean robotics industry. Investing around USD 1 million, the museum showcased 21 kinds of robots: humanoid robots, robotic fish, robots designed for disaster operations, household robots, educational robots and more. Performing robots entertained visitors with singing, dancing and martial arts. Figures showed that around 2~3 thousand people visited the hall a day, totaling over 250,000 people in five months. Robot World, a Korean robotic trade-show held last October, drew even more visitors with 75,000 people in four days.”
KIRIA – supporting market creation
The government long paid attention to technology development for the past decades, and now its focus began to shift towards market creation. As part of its efforts, KIRIA is responsible for promoting Korean medical robots by setting up a consortium together with several private companies. “We are aiming to facilitate the use of ROBODOC in the global medical industry. This surgical robot was developed by Korea-based Curexo Technology Corporation. Through the consortium, Sutter Medical Center in the U.S. and Singapore General Hospital are serving as test beds for the system,” he said. This surgical system was approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Total Hip Arthroplasty procedures. This makes ROBODOC the only active robotic system cleared by the U.S. FDA for orthopedic surgery. These robots have assisted surgeons in more than 24,000 joint replacement procedures across the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea and India.
Globally, there is no quality certifcation programs as the robotics industry is not yet booming. KIRIA began to offer the certification service in some areas including vaccum cleaning robots and educational robot from 2009. “We made the evaluation procedures rigorous to help companies ensure that they meet the needs of international consumers.” Only a few products - Vaccum cleaning robots by Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, and Yujin Robot - were certified in 2010 and there are many other companies collaborating with KIRIA to improve their products. Certification programs helped companies to compete for quality and technical skills which eventually led small companies to improve their technology. The certificaiton is voluntary but figures have revealed that the overseas sales have doubled since.
In collaboration with Ministry of Knowledge Economy, KIRIA takes full charge of creating a robot industrial cluster in Daegu city which will focus on creating design, supporting R&D and technological development, manufacturing trial products, conducting robot standardization tests, and designing and developing technology of Killer Application. Around USD 322 million will be invested between 2012 and 2016 to convert Daegu, Korea’s third largest city, into a robot city and hub to the nation’s robot industry. KIRIA plans to focus on the development of medical and welfare robots as well as industrial robots for small and medium manufacturers.
“KIRIA is also responsible for training manpower for the future robot industry. We are collaborating with universities and research institutes to open classes in robotics technology. We are also financially supporting several college departments and graduate schools specializing in robot technology. This aims to train young engineering students and researchers to meet industry expections and foster research in applied robotics field,” he said.
Leading countries in robotics engineering
Today, the United States leads the world in the development of military robots. Its research and development efforts on robotics have focused primarily on defense-related applications. Peter Singer, of Brookings Institution, says mankind’s 5,000-year monopoly in war is breaking down. The Department of Defense plans to develop an increasingly sophisticated force of unmanned systems over the next 25 years. The Pentagon is currently in the process of creating an EATR, a robot that fuels itself by eating whatever biomass it finds around. Besides military robots, the U.S. is also ahead in utilizing robotics applications to space and medical industry.
Japan is famous for its cutting-edge humanoid robots, and is the closest to a future where humans and intelligent robots routinely live side by side and interact socially. They are entertaining children, replacing pets and even preparing sushi and pancakes. Japan is also by far the most automated country in the world. Currently, industrial robots toiling around the world are mostly in Japan. There are 306 robots for every 10,000 factory workers – a robot density 6 times the world average (50). Density in Korea increased continuously and it is now the second highest with 287.
“The robotics industry is now growing at a rapid speed worldwide and we expect these markets to expand in 2012. As the prediction of Bill Gates that the personal computer would transform our society was proven true, so will the use of robots soon change the way we live and how we perform our everyday tasks in the future.”