|A patient uses a robot-assisted gait training system. (P&S Mechanics)|
Sitting at the console of robotic surgery system da Vinci S at the Robot Training Center of Yonsei University Health System, urologist Rha Koon-ho was performing prostate removal surgery.
Peering into a viewer showing a 3-D image of the prostate and managing a controller with each hand, Rha remotely maneuvered tiny robotic arms mounted with surgical scissors and a pincer to cut away the prostate.
“Performing robot surgery is now like driving a car or playing a video game,” said Rha after wrapping up the hour-long surgery.
“Operations have become much easier for doctors and for patients, too,” said the doctor, who has performed more than 1,400 prostate removals and 300 operations for kidney cancer with the da Vinci S and Si robotic surgical systems.
“The next goal of surgical robot technology will be to develop an automated surgery robot, like a self-driving car.”
|A doctor practices robot-assisted surgery at the Robot Training Center of Yonsei University Health System. (YUHS)|
Some 10,000 robot-assisted operations for surgery, obstetrics, and urology have been performed at the hospital since 2005, around 1,500 a year. Even though Korean doctors’ robotic surgery skills are advanced, almost all robots used for the surgeries are produced by foreign firms such as Intuitive Surgical, the firm that makes the da Vinci models, because their domestic rivals still lag behind in technology.
But Rha saw a rosy future for Korean medical device makers, saying “Korea will be able to catch up with those rivals abroad within five years.”
Some large hospitals in Korea are expanding their use of robots from surgery to physiotherapy by introducing robot-assisted gait training systems.
Hyundai Heavy Industries, which entered the robotics business in 1984 and has produced industrial robots since 1997, began mass producing the first surgical robots in Korea last year.
Around 2.1 trillion won ($2 billion) worth of industrial and service robots were churned out last year, down 0.6 percent from 2011 due to decreased investment in manufacturing facilities and sluggish demand, according to government data to be released later this month.
The Korean robotics industry, however, has grown almost threefold in the five years since 2007, when it marked 750 billion won worth of robot production.
The domestic robotics industry has a high growth potential, according to Cho Yeong-hoon, general director of the Korea Association of Robot Industry, an institute representing the Korean robot industry.
“A wide range of robots, from those for space and deep-ocean explorations to wearable robots, are in development at robotics firms, institutes and universities.”
Government-led efforts to nurture the sector are also underway, including a comprehensive strategy beginning in 2005 for developing the robotics industry, and a special law to develop intelligent robots, the world’s first of its kind, passed in 2008.
The Korean government launched the first five-year plan for nurturing the robotics market in 2009 based on the special law, and is scheduled to complete work on the next five-year plan by the end of this year, which will be centered on collaboration between relevant government agencies and convergence of technologies from different industrial sectors, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy.
|Unmanned vehicles, developed by the military agencies and private defense firms, are seen during a military parade in Seoul to mark the 65th Armed Forces Day on Oct. 1. (Yonhap News)|
Earlier this month, three types of unmanned “wheel-legged” vehicles were unveiled to the public during a military parade celebrating the 65th Armed Forces Day.
The robots saw light after some six years of co-development by 21 government-funded research centers and private defense weapons makers, including the Agency for Defense Development, the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, Samsung Thales, Hyundai Rotem and Future Man Electronics.
The alliance of government agencies and private firms spent 46 billion won on the project.
“The wheel-legged robots were developed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions,” said an official from the ADD, adding “They will also be able to be deployed for dangerous missions such as landmine detection.”
The vehicles have a technological edge over foreign mobile robots, including the U.S.’ DMARS-E (Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System-Exterior) and Israel’s Guardium, according to the defense agency.
With the wireless-broadband technology and monitoring system, the robots can transport video images to a control center.
Some other technologies incorporated in the surveillance robots include a stealth system and autonomous driving system.
The use of Wi-Bro X (Extended) technology also allows control of multiple unmanned vehicles.Robots in daily life
Robots are infiltrating everyday life as well. Automated robot vacuum cleaners, such as Tango made by Samsung Electronics and Roboking by LG Electronics, clean by themselves.
The penguin-like toy robot Albert, developed by SK Telecom, can be used in several ways, such as for simple walkie-talkie type communication and educational games.
One example is a shopping board game in which the educational robot acts as a customer and the family members as sellers.
“Parents can naturally teach their kids about money. And for those disabled children Albert can help them learn how to buy stuff while playing the game with their family,” said Hwang Eun-dong, senior manager of SK’s convergence business office.
“Albert is different from smart robots such as Smart Pet developed by Bandai, which could conduct simple and limited activities.”
SK’s smart robot is the first of its kind to run on the Android system which can operate various smartphone applications.
The educational robot reads books out loud, either in Korean or English, when a user points an electronic pen-type scanner on the pages, and will likely be expandable to other languages including French and Spanish.
Small sensors installed under Albert’s belly identify light gray labyrinthine patterns inscribed on cards or game boards and recognize what is printed on them.
The scanning technology helps the toy robot detect the location, too.
“Since the robot runs on Android smartphones, various types of mobile applications can be developed. That is, there is no limit to how the robot is used,” the SK official said.
Monitoring seniors who are living alone is among the applications in the works.
The educational robot business also helps create jobs and foster co-prosperity with SMEs and conglomerates as small and medium sized enterprises supply content and books.
“I hope the government supports the small firms in developing content for educational robots,” said Hwang, pointing out the lack of a government control tower in charge of the educational and service robot businesses.
“By moving its focus toward the two sectors and their related software businesses the government will be able to vitalize the mobile content market and increase employment.”
By Kim Young-won (email@example.com