Rise of the Machines

Demand for service robots – which play the role of usher, food server or even exercise instructor – has risen in Singapore and the region.

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Service robots such as RoboCoaches serve as exercise instructors using motion sensing technology. 

By Annabelle Liang

“This way please,” were words familiar to Minister for Trade and Industry Mr S Iswaran, who was about to give an opening address on stage.

Only this time, he was led by an extraordinary usher – service robot FURo-D (pictured below). She moves, maintains eye contact and can respond to conversations in up to 26 languages.

FURo-D originalFURo-D, the brainchild of South Korean-based Future Robot, guides passengers at San José International Airport in California. The robot prints boarding passes at Brazil’s Santos Dumont Airport.

In August, FURo-D was brought to Singapore, where it garnered interest from shopping malls and service providers. Creator Future Robot was one of 30 exhibitors at the latest Singapore International Robo Expo, held on 1 and 2 November.

Singapore exceeds the global average installation rate of industrial robots, which perform difficult tasks in factories or construction sites with precision, a recent International Federation of Robotics (IFR) report showed.

Still, one should not ignore the mounting demand for service robots in Singapore, the region and beyond, said Dan Kara, Research Director, Robotics at ABI Research.

“Traditionally, there was a lot of holdover from the industrial sector in the marketplace, so it was industrial robots and everything else,” he said. “But the times have changed. The interest in consumer robots is basically high everywhere,” he added.

Another IFR report showed that 41,060 professional service robots were sold last year, a 25% increase from 2014. This amounted to a sales value of US$4.6 billion ($6.57 billion).

At the expo’s opening address, Minister Iswaran said an increased uptake of these robots will “transform our services industries” and benefit sectors like healthcare.

“The adoption of robotics is accelerating globally, and Singapore is starting from a position of strength,” he added.

Over the next three years, more than $450 million will be used to support the country’s National Robotics Programme, the government has announced. This falls under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan, where $3.2 billion has been set aside for investment in advanced manufacturing and engineering. 

Dr Shin Kyung-Chul, President, Yujin Robot, lauded the need for government support. “A (consumer) robot has huge potential benefit but economic compensation is not easy,” he explained.

Consumer, or service robots perform a variety of functions. Like FURo-D, they can serve as information providers. Some like Pepper, designed by Japan’s SoftBank Robotics, function as a companion, while others can help in the rehabilitation of stroke victims.

At Singapore’s Rong Heng Seafood restaurant, five robots have been deployed to ease the manpower crunch. Designed in Japan and made in China, each robot costs around $17,000. They deliver food, entertain guests and collect dirty plates.

“Hiring staff can be a challenge, so the robots are here to help relieve this problem,” its executive director Frank Liu told The Straits Times. “Robots also don’t take breaks or medical leave. They don’t need to eat or go on leave,” he said.

Locally-developed robots have been making waves too. Nadine, a robot created by scientists at Nanyang Technological University, works as a receptionist at its Institute of Media Innovation. She can express emotions, recognise faces and remember previous conversations.

RoboCoach, developed by students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) functions a lot like its name – this human-sized social robot leads the elderly in exercises in fun and interactive ways by using motion sensing technology. In 2014, it was first placed on trial at a Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at Mei Ling Street.

After good feedback, the team has built and rolled out five new RoboCoaches for three Voluntary Welfare Organisations, with support from the Infocomm Media Development Authority, Government Technology Agency and Ministry of Social and Family Development.

To engage seniors further, a Bingo game and video playback function was implemented, said Li Yinbei, an NP electrical engineering lecturer who supervised the project.

“The next focus is to develop RoboCoach into a companion for the elderly, taking care of both their physical health and mental well-being,” Li said. “It will be able to... interact with the elderly naturally and meaningfully to help them combat loneliness.”

Image credit:

Picture of FURo-D - Future Robot


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