International automation was a topic of multiple sessions at RoboBusiness 2018 in Silicon Valley this week, even as new developments emerged around the world. Japan has aimed for the heavens with robots and is looking to technology to repair relations closer to home. Also, Germany could be reigniting its efforts for Industry 4.0.
Robotics Business Review has partnered with Abishur Prakash at Center for Innovating the Future to provide its readers with cutting-edge insights into recent developments in international robotics, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?
Japan, China build bridges through automation
Robotics development: The governments of Japan and China will reportedly begin discussions to build closer relations. But the latest talks will be around AI and robotics, what is being called an “innovation dialogue.”
This comes as Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, prepares to visit China next month in a promising sign of rapprochement between the two longtime Asian rivals.
Geopolitical significance: New technologies are helping Japan and China overcome a history of division in what I’ve called “Next Geopolitics.”
In fact, there have been signs for some time that Japan and China would collaborate in AI and robotics. In June, Japan and China announced government-level discussions around policies for self-driving cars.
That same month, China’s Didi Chuxing, the largest ride-hailing service in the world, said it will launch an AI-based service in Japan through a partnership with SoftBank.
In July, Baidu announced plans to launch autonomous buses in Japan in 2019 and unveiled an AI chip for these buses.
And FANUC, the largest maker of industrial robots in the world, has been steadily opening up factories in China. In the past four months, FANUC has started work on two new factories in the provinces of Guangdong and Hebei.
It remains to be seen, though, whether these new links between Japan and China can withstand other global events.
Consider that Japan is moving opposite to China in other areas, and this could jeopardize its “repairing” of ties with China. For example, Japan and India are working to jointly-develop military robots, starting with an unmanned ground vehicle.
At the same time, Japan and India are working to develop an alternative to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. On top of all of that, the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. could force Japan to choose a side (which will likely be that of the U.S.).
And if China can’t export as widely as it used to, that could affect Japanese robotics firms. This already appears to be the case, with FANUC saying this summer that it was cutting its profit projections for a second time in a row because of the trade conflict.
Japan’s asteroid landing builds power in space
Robotics development: The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), has achieved a world first. It has launched and landed two robots on a moving asteroid in space.
The mission, which was launched in 2014, is called “Hayabusa 2,” and the asteroid was named “Ryugu,” after a mythical creature in Japanese legends. The robots will study Ryugu and collect samples, returning to Earth in 2020 for scientists to study.
Geopolitical significance: Increasingly, robots have allowed nations to do things in space they couldn’t do before. As in other areas, geopolitics is the catalyst.
For Japan, two things are driving its space strategy: China and the prospect of resources. This past month, JAXA partnered with Japanese airline ANA to launch a project called “Avatar X.” The goal is to create and deploy robots throughout space that can be controlled on Earth. These telepresence robots could also allow Japan to build bases on the moon and offer a new kind of space tourism.
In addition, JAXA is responsible for other ambitious projects, like using massive satellites to beam down solar power from space.
Unlike in the past, when only a few nations, such as the U.S. and Russia, could send robots into space, many countries could soon do so.
Private space launches by companies SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as those offered at low cost, such as by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), so important. As the cost of reaching space drops significantly in the coming years, the number of nations that can enter space will rise.
As space gets crowded, particularly in Earth orbit, the potential for clashes to emerge rises. Robotics will play a crucial role in a second space race, as well as potential conflicts.
Germany restarts Industry 4.0 efforts with trains, cybersecurity
Robotics development: Germany has launched what it called the world’s first self-driving tram. The train, named Combino, traveled around Potsdam, southwest of Berlin. It was developed by a team of just 50 people.
Combino has been built with all kinds of sensor technologies that allow it to scan train tracks, create a digital rendering of the tracks, and respond to unexpected events faster than humans.
Geopolitical significance: While Germany’s “Industry 4.0” vision may have waned in recent years, its economic and technological priorities could be returning.
What makes things different this time around is Germany’s geopolitical situation. Its relationship with the U.S., China, and several other nations has changed, and this is starting to influence what Germany does with technology.
For example, last month, the German government announced a new cybersecurity agency modeled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Germany’s agency will create new cybersecurity technologies. One of the biggest reasons for the new agency is “independence” from the U.S. on digital technologies.
At the same time, German military exports are restarting a development that has been under way for some time now. And robots are leading the way. Germany is in talks with Canada to sell it a secondhand Euro Hawk drone for $823 million. Ottawa wants to use this drone to fly in the Arctic.
However, the German drone is missing essential technologies, such as a GPS receiver and encryption measures. Germany itself has stopped using the drone because of its poor capabilities.
Still, this shift shows that the ongoing trade spat between the U.S. and Canada may be pushing Ottawa to satisfy its military needs through other countries.
Questions remain as to whether the self-driving train or cybersecurity research agency will actually result in actual gains for Germany. Can Germany actually maintain a security strategy that’s independent of what the U.S. and the rest of the European Union want? Could Germany and the U.S. clash over which country supplies digital technologies?
On top of all of this, an old concern is resurfacing: China’s growing foreign investment in Germany. China is investing in the city of Duisburg, a rust belt city that has become central to the One Belt, One Road initiative.