November 29, 2016      

Like many other nations, South Korea is facing the challenge of meeting the needs of a rapidly aging population without wrecking its finances. The country currently has more than 6 million people above the age of 65, out of a total population of slightly over 50 million. This population segment is projected grow to more than 8 million by 2020. South Korean robotics is envisioned as part of the likely medical care for many of these people.

We’ve already looked at how the government is supporting South Korean robotics research and development. On the commercial side, the inevitable growth in demand for healthcare services is an opportunity for increased robot sales, both at home and abroad.

For example, Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. is developing various types of surgical robots, including systems designed for arthroplasty, the surgical reconstruction or replacement of joints.

Meere Co., on the other hand, is working on a government-sponsored project to develop a laparoscopic robot that can be used to treat cancer using minimally invasive surgery.

In addition, Koh Young Technology Inc., which specializes in 3D measurement and inspection technologies, is planning to expand its business into the medical sector. The South Korean company is preparing to commercialize a brain surgery robot with the goal of winning approval from the Korea Food and Drug Administration by the end of this year and from the U.S. FDA sometime next year.

Koh Young Technology is already testing the system with a couple of university hospitals in Korea as well as with the Harvard Medical School in the U.S.

Business takeaways:

  • Not only is South Korean robotics research getting government investment, but it’s also directed at responding to fast-growing markets such as healthcare.
  • Robots for minimally invasive surgery and deliveries within hospitals are intended to help deal with an aging population.
  • South Korea is also developing collaborative robots, social robots, and military drones (see examples below).

Minimally invasive surgical robot in the works

On the academic front, the Healthcare Robotics Research Group at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) is investigating robotics for several different medical and health service applications.

The Seoul-based organization’s signature project is a surgical robot that’s designed to operate in extremely sensitive areas of the human body, such as the brain and spinal cord, which are impossible to access with existing surgical robots (see image above).

The KIST robot is an “active cannula” device, featuring a motor-powered tube that moves in whatever the direction the surgeon chooses. The tube measures about 4mm (0.15 in.) in diameter and can go into a human body without damaging surrounding delicate tissue. The tube is about half a thin as the one used by the popular da Vinci surgical robot and its forceps are equally as strong.

The KIST robot cannot hold any other surgical instruments, but project researchers expect that it will eventually be able to use various types of small tools, such as scissors and heated pieces of iron used for cauterizing.

KIST is aiming to commercialize the robot within three to five years once a follow-up study, including animal testing and clinical trials, has concluded.

Several other South Korean robotics programs are also pursuing medical applications.

Chonnam National University, for instance, has spent the past few years developing a nanorobot to deliver microscopic capsules filled with drugs directly to cancer tumors. The researchers claim that Bacteriobot promises a more efficient, less harmful alternative to chemotherapy.

Yujin Robot's GoCart

Yujin Robot’s GoCart is designed to bring things to people. (Source: Yujin Robot)

GoCart responds to rising demand

Yujin Robot Co., which already produces various types of service and industrial robots, is planning to release an updated version of its GoCart. The autonomous robot is equipped with sensors and laser scanners to help it detect obstacles and plan routes.

GoCart designed to deliver items to people in hospitals and offices. Yujin Robot expects strong demand its mobile robots because healthcare facility operators worldwide are finding themselves hard-pressed to maintain quality and hold down costs in the face of rising demand.

Yujin Robot is finalizing safety tests and plans to launch its GoCart in the U.S. and other markets early next year.

More on Healthcare and International Robotics:

Other Korean robotics charge ahead

The South Korean robotics industry is advancing so rapidly that observers might soon need a scorecard to follow all of the announcements of new technologies and business strategies.

Hyundai Heavy Industries is in the process of spinning off and expanding its robotics business division.

Local telecom giant SK Telecom Co. has announced that it plans to enter the social robot market in 2018.

RoboStar Co., which currently specializes in robot subsystems and components, says it is working on developing a line of two-armed robots that will be targeted at various applications.

Hanwha Techwin's K10 automated resupply vehicle

Hanwha Techwin’s K10 automated ammunition resupply vehicle. (Source: Hanwha Techwin)

Hanwha Techwin, adding to its line of autonomous robot vehicles, reports that it plans to release South Korea’s first collaborative robot early next year. The company is already a major robotics supplier to the South Korean military.

Among Hanwha Techwin’s current offerings is the K10 robotized automatic ammunition resupply vehicle for the company’s s K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer.

Hankuk Carbon Co., a composite parts manufacturer, is now branching out into robotics, collaborating with Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) on the development of a next-generation vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

The joint venture, if successful, would provide Hankuk with a technological advantage over other domestic drone manufacturers in the soaring unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market.