Service robots in figures

An opportunity for a new educational strategy in engineering

By Philippa Martin-King

The international summit on robolution held from 23-25 March 2011 in Lyon, France gathered together hundreds of the world's leading expert robot manufacturers, designers, developers and government representatives. Innorobo provided a good indication of how important this new engineering sector is to certain world-leading technology economies and how much possibility still exists for future growth.

RIBA (robot for interactive body assistance) developed by RIKEN-TRI (Riken and Tokai Rubber Industries joint project). RIBA (robot for interactive body assistance) developed by RIKEN-TRI (Riken and Tokai Rubber Industries joint project).

Strategic government plan

From 23-25 March 2011 the French city of Lyon was invaded by hundreds of robots from all over the world. The organizer of the robolution conference Innorobo, Bruno Bonnell, former founder of the video game company Infogramesand today in charge of Robopolis, the French service robot company, commented on the rapid expansion of the service robot market, particularly in Asia. It leaves, he said, room for comparable development in Europe and the US (United States). "Over the space of just three years," he said, "from 2008 to 2011, sales of service robots in the world will more than double. In both Korea and Japan governments have put robotic growth in a prominent place on their national strategy plans. By 2015 South Korea plans to be number one in world service robot suppliers."

We need to stimulate industry investment in robotics through our educational system

Bruno Bonnell,

Kyung Chui Shin, President of Yujin Robot Co, a leading service robot manufacturer in South Korea, told attendees how in 2008, the Korean government had set up a special department with accompanying legislation to deal with robotic promotion. Indeed, on the basis of the 2010 figures he supplied, the South Korean government had invested USD 730 million over the 8 years from 2002.

Investment had produced a variety of commercial and trial products, he said, and a nationwide infrastructure has been established to provide systematic and consistent support for the robotic industry. As a result, the technology gap ratio between South Korea and other countries with advanced robotic technology has decreased from an average of 4 years (2003) to 2,1 years.

Asia leads the world in robotic development

South Korea, he said, is at present 5th in the world robot market, where the service robot growth is increasing particularly fast, in China and Japan as well as in Korea. He explained how South Korea has set out strategy to expand its robotic market, moving from the areas of education, healthcare and guidance to expand into new market areas of medical operation, transportation, firefighting and prevention, care for the elderly and agriculture. In 2013 it expects to be in the top three robot-producing countries and by 2018, with products linked to domestic help, marine navigation and aviation, body-like robots and parts that can be worn, to be the world's number one producer.

Figures for other nations

The President of Yujin Robot provided other figures for robotic development. In terms of academic research, 2008 figures from the Taiwanese National Science Council show that there were some 87 professors and associate professors working on 130 different topics directly linked to robotic technology with research and development principally in the areas of education, entertainment, cleaning, security and healthcare. Today's Taiwanese market consists of some 211 manufacturers who develop and supply relevant components and edutainment robot OEM/ODM manufacturing countries. One leader is Matsutek, the 2nd largest cleaning robot provider worldwide.

In China, while focusing on development of the humanoid, elderly care robot and rescue robot and actively researching and developing the areas of space, ocean and military robots, the nation also expects to achieve noticeable progress in the area of manufacturing systems.

A need for promoting robotic development in Europe and the US

"Here in France," said Bonnell "it takes four years to train an engineer. Now you can start to draw conclusions and make comparisons when it comes to robotic growth in the world.

"In terms of installed base," said Bonnell, "Europe is ahead of the US where – and that is a rare occurrence – President Obama has even made declarations about investing in robotic growth. But in comparison with Asian development, it gives you an idea of how much remains to be achieved in such a short time if we want to be competitive."

Bonnell made a plea for standardization and more constructive educational plans for engineers. "We disagree on transmission, electrical plugs, and on the type of batteries. All this discussion takes up valuable time. We're not talking science fiction now. What we need is government awareness and the political decision with the relevant means to go ahead with robotic development."

Indeed, there is corroborating evidence that underlines how little is being done in Europe and the US to involve more students in engineering. An OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) study concluded that "business leaders have few choices when looking to employ scientists and engineers".

Develop educational programmes

Bonnell concluded by saying how great a need there is to train robotics engineers. "We're losing ground and time. We need to stimulate industry investment in robotics through educational channels."

Micro robots Micro robots
RIBA (robot for interactive body assistance) developed by RIKEN-TRI (Riken and Tokai Rubber Industries joint project). RIBA (robot for interactive body assistance) developed by RIKEN-TRI (Riken and Tokai Rubber Industries joint project).