Service robot gears up to fight COVID-19

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Fifty-six robots wearing the traditional costumes of China's 56 ethnic groups danced during a 30-minute performance in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, ahead of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on February 4.

Nine robots showcased their aerial snowboarding and skiing skills during the performance, simulating athletes' facial expressions while also maintaining balance and synchronization.

The robot model, named Wukong—the Chinese name of the Monkey King from the classic Journey to the West—was developed by UBTECH Robotics, a company established in Shenzhen in 2012, which specializes in the development, manufacturing and sales of humanoid robots.

Wukong robots can simulate human movements like dancing, sneezing, doing push-ups and practicing kungfu. They can even get to their feet after falling over like a human.

Using their "eyes," Wukong robots can identify human facial expressions and interact with them accordingly.

Wukong robots also have information storage and sharing capabilities. They can recognize many plant species and store a large number of picture books. This book-storing capacity, along with their vocal capabilities, allows such robots to read books to children in place of parents or teachers. Wan Mingwei is the engineer who led their development. He has held a life-long passion for robotics and as a child dreamed of becoming an engineer in the field. His childhood dream drove him to switch from the gaming industry to robotics in 2016.

He and his team spent nearly three years developing Wukong and they were awarded the Most Innovative Product prize at the World Robot Conference in 2018.

Booming business

Human beings previously illustrated their imagination about humanoid robots through art and literature, but it was only in recent decades these conceptions began to take physical form.

In 2000, Japanese automaker Honda launched the world's first robot capable of walking on two feet: ASIMO. The 1.3-meter tall, 48-kg robot could walk, use stairs, and shake hands.

Continuously improved through research, it can now walk at a speed of 2.7 km per hour and run at 9 km per hour. It's able to talk with multiple people at the same time and perform difficult moves such as opening a bottle and pouring water into a cup. ASIMO is therefore regarded as a milestone in the development of humanoid robots.

Atlas, a humanoid robot developed by American engineering and robotic design company Boston Dynamics, can drive cars and perform difficult movements such as backflips as flexibly as a professional athlete.

China is a latecomer to the humanoid robot game, but the industry is developing rapidly.

The service robot industry registered explosive growth in 2020, with sales volume reaching 22.2 billion yuan ($3.49 billion), up 47 percent year on year, according to Beijing-based Huaon Ican Enterprise Consulting.

This momentum continued in 2021, with output of service robots increasing 70 percent in the first half of the year. It is estimated that sales will reach 61.35 billion yuan ($9.6 billion) in 2023.

The number of service robot enterprises has also increased rapidly. In 2014, there were only 6,342 such companies; however, the number exceeded 50,000 in 2020 and reached 105,506 in 2021.

UBTECH Robotics began developing its humanoid robot Walker in 2016 and finished four iterations in just five years. Its newest iteration Walker X, launched in July last year,

can walk at a maximum speed of 3 km per hour and even tackle slopes with a gradient of 20 degrees. It can also use stairs and walk on uneven floors.

Walker X has realized multiple technical upgrades and can provide more flexible services. For instance, it can operate home appliances such as refrigerators, coffee machines and vacuum cleaners, and perform tasks like giving massages, unscrewing bottle caps and pouring water.

Compared with ASIMO and Atlas, which have high costs, UBTECH Robotics has reduced costs by independently developing core components and key technologies that lay the foundation for the commercialization of its products.

The cutting-edge technologies applied in developing Walker have also been used to develop other robot series such as the intelligent education robot Wukong, logistics robot AMR and ultraviolet disinfection robot ADIBOT.

Opportunities galore

Service robots have yet to become popular with consumers due to their high prices and immature technologies. Lack of market demand has made it hard for enterprises to generate profit to reinvest in research and development until COVID-19 unexpectedly changed the situation. Robots have been widely applied in contactless services all over the world, such as in disinfection and delivery.

After the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, it took UBTECH Robotics less than 20 days to develop three robots to aid in epidemic control. The robots were used in 15 countries and regions to assist in tasks such as taking temperatures and disinfection.

During the latest COVID-19 resurgence in Shenzhen, an ADIBOT ultraviolet disinfection robot was used at a local industrial park to disinfect the canteen.

The canteen is nearly 7,000 square meters and can accommodate 1,200 people. The robot carried out a thorough disinfection of the cafeteria every night, greatly reducing pressure on staff.

As China becomes an aging society, service robots can also help serve the elderly by playing a role in labor-intensive industries such as express delivery and food delivery. They can also serve to accompany the elderly by talking with them.

Assistance robots can offer seniors more dignity and privacy when dressing and showering. They are supposedly more patient and better tempered than human nurses, enabling older residents to receive better care.

However, in addition to opportunities, the service robot industry also faces many challenges.

Tan Min, Chief Brand Officer of UBTECH Robotics, said China's robot industry started developing relatively late and therefore needs to make extra efforts to catch up with other countries. Also, as the artificial intelligence (AI) industry is still in the preliminary stages of development, it requires more technological advances to empower the robotics industry.

In addition, the industry needs long-term investment, which requires investors to have more patience. Lack of talent is also a restrictive factor. Tan said that, as of 2020, the shortfall in AI robot-related talent had reached 5 million.

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