November 07, 2016      

Not only should robotics businesses keep abreast of new innovations and industry transactions, but they should also be aware of how national interests affect technology development and deployment. On the eve of U.S. elections, we should note how Russian and Chinese robotics agreements could help geopolitical rivals.

Over the past few years, the Western reaction to the situation in Ukraine has brought Moscow and Beijing closer together than at any point in recent history.

Until now, most of the agreements signed between Russia and China revolve around energy. In 2014, Russia signed the biggest gas deal in its post-Soviet history with China for $400 billion. The two countries later signed a second natural gas deal “slightly” lower in value than the first. Once these two pipelines begin delivering gas, China will replace Germany as Russia’s biggest natural gas market.

Now, Russian and Chinese robotics are becoming part of the Sino-Russian relationship. Trade between the two is expected to grow to $40 billion this year, and it could increase to $200 billion, according to Russian sources.

Business takeaways:

  • Following their energy agreements, China and Russia have built partnerships around robots.
  • Russo-Chinese robotics developments are serving the defense, agriculture, supply chain, and service markets, presenting both a threat and an opportunity to other nations.
  • It remains to be seen how China and Russia’s robotics alliance will affect the global robotics market, but it’s not the only international relationship to watch.

In April 2015, the Skolkovo Foundation, created by Dmitry Medvedev, then the president of Russia, partnered with China’s Cybernaut Investment Group. The agreement created a joint Russian-Chinese startup incubator, a robotics center, and a $200 million investment fund. The incubator will be based in Russia, and the robotics center will be in China.

This past March, Hangzhou, China-based Keysi Microelectronics Co. bought 100 service robots from Promobot, a Russian robotics startup. The companies are planning for a “joint production line” in the Chinese province of Zhejiang.

The Chinese robotics market could be served by Russia devices such as Promobot.

Russia’s Promobot service robot is already in use in China and other countries.

As of March, five Promobot robots were already in use at a business center in Hangzhou. They speak multiple languages, including Mandarin, and they can greet visitors and help people navigate the center.

Promobot is the same company behind the recent “robot escape” that went viral in June. Other countries using its service robot include Kazakhstan, Ireland, and Czech Republic.

Also in June, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) signed a deal with St. Petersburg International Economic Forum to create a “Russia-China Centre for Medical Robots.”

The Chinese robotics facility and am RDIF-related industrial production line will use Russian technologies.

These developments do not appear to follow any pattern — such as revolving around energy. Instead, they appear to be initial steps in what could become a powerful robotics relationship. This is because Russia and China are collaborating in multiple areas where robots are involved.

Russo-Chinese robot alliance

Rostec State Corp., a Russian civil and defense company plans to start promoting its “combat multipurpose robotic system” around the world. Uran-9 provides support to soldiers through surveillance, transport, and attack capabilities.

Will Russia become a military supplier of Chinese robots? China has already purchased Su-35 fighter jets from Russia, and it previously signed a deal for four Lada-class submarines.

As China develops artificial islands and looks to Russia to support its claims in the region, will jointly developed military robots follow? China is already pursuing the development of underwater drones in the South China Sea, along with advanced sensors, to keep track of its claims.

Two years ago, Russia was reportedly developing underwater combat robots for the Arctic to protect its oil interests and transportation networks. Will these parallel developments converge into more robotic collaboration?

Russia-China robotics alliance blooms in agriculture

Agriculture is also an area of possible robotic cooperation between Russia and China.

In May 2015, the two countries signed a $2 billion deal to create an agricultural fund and jump-start agriculture projects. The agreement also included a free trade zone between “key farming belts.”

Exactly a year later, the Russian agriculture minister proposed a Russia-China Business Council for agriculture. Could China and Russia work to develop a new breed of robots for agricultural applications?

This June, Russia and China signed yet another deal around agriculture, this time worth $1.1 billion. It will see a “major logistics corridor” built around Russia, made up of 30 facilities to help export grain to China. The project is expected to be completed by 2025.

Will Russia and China deploy supply chain robots to help move grain, package products, and keep track of shipments? Or will self-driving trucks help transport the grain from the Russian terminals to other facilities?

Which nations will get to Mars, with robotic help?

Competition and cooperation

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom for North American and European robotics. While Russian and Chinese robotics for agriculture and logistics would be serious competitors, they may also represent marketing and partnership opportunities for Western companies.

In July, Russia and China began discussing collaboration in space, including joint missions to the Moon and Mars and the development of nuclear and navigation systems. Robotics possibilities include autonomous rovers to navigate extraterrestrial surfaces and the use of humanoid robots to assist space missions?

More on Russian, Chinese Robotics:

Geopolitical monitoring needed

Robotics experts have mainly focused on the relationships among academia, robotics companies, and logal and national governments. However, we should also be aware of changing international relationships.

Russian and Chinese robotics could very well be the next energy alliance. But the technology isn’t limited to Russia and China. Numerous countries are enhancing their relationships in a way that can lead to more robotics collaboration, like India and Japan, Israel and Turkey, and Vietnam and the U.S.

Unlike robotics innovations coming from academic and corporate innovation labs, the relationships between two countries have two elements. First, what does robotics bring to their mutual military, innovation, or industrial needs?

Second, how will a relationship such as that growing between Russia and China influence global robotics?

Robotics businesses should pay attention to both elements because they present a new disruption or opportunity.