Imagine robots carrying out resource exploration and digging minerals at 6,000 meters below sea level. This is not a scene from a science fiction film, but was presented by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering pavilion at EXPO 2012 Yeosu Korea. The presentation was designed to show how marine robots can help deal with a drain on the natural resources by 2040. The Korean robotics industry, marginal a decade ago, has now grown by shifting its focus from R&D toward market expansion, with a joint public-private sector endeavor paying off.
Structure shifts of robotics industry
According to Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement (KIRIA), the production scale of the Korean robotics industry jumped from USD 600 million in 2007 to USD 2 billion last year, and is expected to reach USD 2.7 billion in 2012. The structure of the industry has also been changing. The industry has traditionally focused on manufacturing robots as the strength of the Korean economy lies in hardware. However, it is now gradually expanding its areas into professional and personal service robots. The manufacturing robots of the annual average percentage change was 21.3%(USD 1.4 billion, 2011), professional service robots 40.6%(USD 61 million) and personal service robots 49.3%(USD 214 million) for the last six years.
“Given the worldwide slowdown in the robotics industry, as well as the global financial crisis over the last decade, the Korean robotics industry has fared quite well. Now the Korean robotics industry has grown to a level where it can compete with, if not exceed, the U.S., or Japanese products, and the technology gap has significantly narrowed. It has also become the benchmark for some nations, and even advanced nations in robotics are paying keen attention to its industry and policies,” said Kam-chan Kang, Director General for Emerging Industries at the Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy (MKE). Compared to the U.S. (100), the Korean robotics technology remains at 79.2 with 2.1 years of technology gap.
The government support in the robotics industry
Since the robot team was first set up within the ministry in 2005, there have been continuous efforts to back Korean robotics companies. With the government’s continued support, companies have shown remarkable progress in the global market: Samsung Techwin received orders from Algeria to supply its robotic surveillance system in 2010. KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) so far has sold a total of eight HUBOs, a humanoid robot, to Singapore and the U.S. schools including MIT, Pennsylvania, Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, USC, and Virginia Tech. Eterne, now merged with Meere company, has succeeded in developing laparoscopic surgical robots though joint R&D with Purdue University. Curexo began to localize parts for Robodoc, a surgical robot in joint operation this year. Taking another step forward, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy is expected to announce its ten-year plan this October.
“For the next decade, Korea will move into a new robotic era, and the government in particular is aiming to spur robot convergence in sectors including cars (driverless), airplanes, submarines, national defense, and medical care. On top of this, we are expecting to apply robots to areas which are difficult and dangerous for men to handle such as reading gas-pipes and power lines, or checking transmission towers in the form of drone helicopter.”
‘Pilot projects for Robot market verification’ is the government’s recent representative policy with investment of around USD 27 million in 2011 and USD 20 million this year. This project is divided into two categories: top-down and bottom-up. The government-led projects include fire-fighting, education, water and sewage, rehabilitation, and agriculture; the private-led projects drawing good ideas from private sectors include medical care, silver care, culture, guidance and security. For the outcomes of the projects, you can see the demonstration in the Robot World 2012.
Robot World 2012
Robot World 2012, hosted by the MKE, is the biggest robot show in Korea held on Oct 25-28, at KINTEX, Korea. At the Robot World mainly comprised of exhibition, robot city, contest, and forum, people can meet exhibitors and buyers from all over the world, and experience various personal and professional service robots. “In 2011, it drew nationwide attention under the theme of ‘Invitation to robot life’, attracting over 78,000 visitors. With the topic of ‘All about robot’, Robot world 2012 is aiming to make the exhibition more globalized this time. We have invited 400 overseas buyers, up from 296 last year, and also more contestants from foreign countries (18 teams). At the Robot City, people can see and get first-hand experience with 47 kinds of robots, which promise to be popular among visitors," Kang said.
At the Robot World 2012, Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) will unveil the fruit of ten-years of its endeavors, ‘KIBO’, a Humanoid robot. KIBO is capable of facial expression, perceiving its surroundings through ultrasonic sensor, and spinning in place with a hip joint. KIST will also display ‘MERO’, the advanced form of the HRI (Human Robot Interaction), a core part of intelligent service robot technology. MERO can follow the shape of mouth and facial expression in real time, and also have a simple conversation with voice recognition functionality.
“I hope many will come and see how the Korean robotics has considerably grown for the past years, and get first-hand experiences of diverse robots which will be seen in our daily life. This will further change the perception from the negative view that robots would take their jobs toward a positive view as robots are helping people’s daily life as well as replacing many difficult and dangerous jobs.”