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Age of robots nearer than you think

From ground to sky, and at home, robots have permeated into daily lives; Korean tech firms -- both small and big -- are betting on this fast-emerging market this year

(123rf)
(123rf)
For Kwon Ju-hyeon, a 30-year-old freelancer living in Gyeonggi Province, the robot vacuum cleaner has become something he cannot live without after a month of using it.

Kwon’s robot vacuum cleaner, approximately the size and shape of a pizza, sweeps the floor with just the push of a button on the remote control. Using sensors and drive routines, the autonomous device makes its way around the chairs, tables, couch and drawers inside the house to pick up dust and small particles on the floor without human intervention.

“I use (the robot vacuum) every day. The best thing about it is that my house is always clean despite the fact that I’m not sweeping the floor. The suction power is better than I expected, so (the robot vacuum) picks up fine particles well,” Kwon said.

Like Kwon’s cleaning robot, smart tech gadgets have come closer to humans in many aspects of daily life.

Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic that has limited human interactions over the last two years, service robots are expanding their domains, carrying out physical tasks more accurately, quickly replacing human hands.

Service robots are capable of performing household chores and helping customers at different venues such as hotels and restaurants. Other service robots can also assist doctors in surgery and disinfect areas to reduce the risk of virus transmission.

“Cleaning robots have passed the stage of being the most commercialized sector to become a firmly established market. It is now a part of the home appliances market,” said Jun Jin-woo, executive director of policy planning division at the Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement.

“The robots that have come into our daily life are the retail robots called ‘serving bots.’ Companies such as Baedal Minjok and Robotis have already commercialized serving bots used at restaurants and are testing delivery robots operating in certain areas.”

According to industry estimates, there could be 3,000 serving robots being used at restaurants nationwide to autonomously deliver food from the kitchen to the customer’s table as of December, which would be a whopping increase of 5,900 percent from 2019.

Convenience store chain 7-Eleven and delivery app operator Baedal Minjok recently began mobilizing robots for food delivery service in certain areas.

At a hansik restaurant in Gyeonggi Province where robots are being used to deliver food to customers, one staffer said they were more efficient and less costly than human delivery riders.

Robots can promptly pick up the food after an order is placed, unlike other places where the restaurant has to call up a delivery driver, she said, requesting anonymity.

“(Using delivery robots) is more convenient. It takes only about five to 10 minutes for the delivery robot to get here. For customers who order with a delivery robot, there is no extra fee for delivery. More people are turning to delivery robots and saying they will promote the autonomous service,” said the worker.

The delivery robots are not just limited to the ground. In the skies, unmanned drones also deliver.

In August, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport launched a pilot drone delivery service for pizza in collaboration with local drone company P Square and global pizza brand Domino’s. The drone delivery service received favorable reviews from customers as it took less time to get their orders with a shorter delivery distance in the air.

Last month, GS Caltex successfully dropped off heating oil at a nearby park from its oil station with a drone. The city of Seongnam in Gyeonggi Province announced in November that it will start a test operation of the drone delivery service for a local library in the first half of this year.

Another type of emerging service robots is artificial intelligence-based care robots for seniors. The AI care robots remind clients to take their medications at a certain time and collect conversation and movement data so they can send out emergency texts to a guardian or local health authorities in case of an emergency. The AI care robots can also talk with the user and provide music playlists.

As service robots have become more prevalent in different sectors, conglomerates are pushing for more development and investment in robotics technology and services.

“In the past, the most active robot manufacturers in Korea were small and medium-sized enterprises,” Kim Min-kyo, CEO of Bigwave Robotics, wrote in an International Federation of Robotics’ blog post.

“However, large enterprises such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Doosan, Hanwha, and KT have recently announced that they will be focusing on the robotics business as a future source of growth, drawing attention to the growth potential of the robotics sector.”

South Korean conglomerates appear ready to put their latest robotics technology on display at the CES electronics fair that opens this week in Las Vegas. Although the newest robots won’t be unveiled until the event, most of the participating companies already hinted at showcasing their brand new robotics technology.

Economic analyses point an upward trajectory for the growth potential of robotics markets across the world. According to projections by Hyundai Motor Group and Boston Consulting Group, the global robotics market could jump to $177 billion in 2025 from $44 billion in 2020 and reach $260 billion in 2030 with an annual growth rate of about 30 percent.

The global market for service robots, in particular, recorded a turnover of $6.7 billion in 2020, a growth of 12 percent on year, according to the IFR’s report. The international organization predicts the global service robotics market will continue to post double-digit growth rates through 2025.

“Service robots continued on a successful path proving the tremendous market potential worldwide. Sales of professional service robots rose an impressive 41 percent to 131,800 units in 2020,” said IFR President Milton Guerry.

“The service robot industry is developing at a high pace. Lots of start-up companies appear every year, developing innovative service robot applications and improving existing concepts.”

Meanwhile, Korean robotics industry experts, government officials and scholars voiced a need for better marketing efforts instead of putting too much emphasis and focus on technology and research and development during the KIRIA’s strategic meeting for robot development held on Dec. 15.

“We have to think about the service robot’s user interface that can be easily accessed. We put our focus on analyzing what customers would want when coming up with business strategies for service robots,” said Lee Sang-ho, head of KT’s AI robot business department.

Kim Hwan-geun, vice president of the Korea Association of Robot Industry, pointed out that the country’s robotics industry had zoomed in on research and development too much but now is the time to think deeply about what they are trying to sell.

“If robots sell well in Korea, that will lead to international competitiveness and technology will accordingly develop further,” Kim said.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)
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