November 01, 2016      

South Korea is leading an aggressive drive to direct the future of robotics in the region. Any companies involved with the Asian robotics industry (or that plan to be) should be paying attention.

Until now, South Korea has mainly focused on developing robots for its own economy. Last October, the government tapped Samsung Group to develop robots to replace Chinese labor. The country is already a leader in micro-robots for medical purposes.

This past summer, the South Korean government announced increased funding for robotics research and development. It plans to spend 500 billion won ($440 million) in 2017, close to 50 percent more than what it spent in 2015.

As with the U.S. presidential election, the current political turmoil in South Korea could affect its technology and trade policies, but the country is still likely to pursue strategic partnerships and spend money on industry. For instance, the country plans to spend 6 trillion won ($9.6 billion) to keep its shipbuilders afloat amid the global economic slowdown.

As South Korea belatedly invests in robotic advances at home, the country is looking outward. One relationship that has a huge potential for the future of Asian robotics is South Korea’s ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a group of 10 countries.

ASEAN made headlines at the beginning of this year when it launched the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The economic zone has a population of more than 600 million people, and if it were considered a single economy, it would be the sixth largest in the world.

On July 12, the ASEAN-Korea Center signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement. The MoU is intended to foster collaboration between ASEAN and South Korea and could be especially useful for member nations such as Singapore and Thailand as demand rises for Asian robotics.

How can South Korea and ASEAN build on this MoU to expand their robotics partnership?

One area is solving labor shortages, even if most service robots in use to date in South Korea are robotic vacuum cleaners.

Asian robotics to the rescue for service shortages

Currently, restaurants in Singapore are struggling to deal with a lack of foreign labor. An estimated 90 percent of companies in the food and beverage sectors are affected by this. Singapore’s government has earmarked $333 million (over three years) to develop robotics.

Asian robotics includes restaurant servers in Singapore.

South Korea is looking to serve Singapore’s demand for robots.

Already, some local restaurants are using robots to execute tasks. Chilli Padi Nonya Cafe uses a robot to collecting plates from tables and taking them to the washing area.

Rong Heng Seafood restaurant has a robot that greets customers, as well as two robots named “Lucy” and “Mary” that deliver food to tables.

Can South Korea use the island city-state’s labor shortages as a way to enter its robotics market, providing expertise, funding, and the hardware and software themselves?

“Robotics has been gaining traction in the world due to the need for automation and better productivity,” said Oliver Tian, president of the Singapore Industrial Automation Association. “The latest ‘World Robotics Report’ by the International Federation of Robotics has also identified Singapore as a market with one of the highest robot density in manufacturing — giving us more opportunities for further development in this field, and well as its extension into the services sectors.”

At the same time, South Korea is also not averse to bringing in robots from elsewhere. This month, TPC Mechatronics signed a deal with Boston-based Rethink Robotics Inc. for manufacturing and distribution of its Sawyer collaborative robot arm.

Speaking of robot arms, Samsung and Deutsche Telekom AG demonstrated how upcoming 5G technology could make a robot arm “smarter,” playing to their strengths as networking providers.

Korean robotics for border control

Another area where Asian robotics cooperation can benefit South Korea and ASEAN is border security.

Currently, ASEAN members Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are in the midst of border and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Back in 2014, South Korea was reportedly using Microsoft’s Kinect (part of the Xbox gaming console) to monitor its border with North Korea. If the system identifies a person rather than an animal, it signals a border post.

That autumn, South Korea deployed a border-control robot called SGR-1 developed by Samsung. It is armed with a machine gun and a grenade launcher, but firing is still controlled by soldiers.

Can South Korea supply similar technology to ASEAN members to scan their waters and monitor foreign vesssels? Despite the recent warming of relations between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China, could ASEAN members deploy South Korea’s SGR-1 robots in disputed parts of the South China Sea, like the Spratly Islands?

In addition, South Korea is working with the U.S. Department of Defense on joint research into disaster-response robots. The project will spend $6 million over the next three years.

Translation, education to benefit from Asian AI

Two other areas where cooperation between South Korea and ASEAN members could expand are education and transportation.

Asian robotics is an area of interest to South Korea and ASEAN members

South Korea has set a goal of achieving artificial intelligence that is “capable of understanding human languages” by 2019, along with AI capable of “complex thinking” by 2026.

Asian robotics and AI can also benefit South Korea in the educational market. In 2011, a robot called “Engkey” went into service teaching English at Hagjeong Primary School in South Korea.

South Korea could export educational robots to ASEAN members and develop on-demand educational programs and curriculums using AI.

Samsung Electronics has identified robotics, drones, and the Internet of Things (IoT) as areas worth developing. It said those areas are more urgent than 3D printing or additive manufacturing.

South Korea offers help solve traffic problems

In August, the South Korean government said it plans to put self-driving cars on its roads by 2024.

Many ASEAN members face challenges when it comes to transport. In 2015, Jakarta, Indonesia, was ranked as having the worst traffic in the world, with the average driver starting and stopping 33,240 times a year. Could South Korea supply Indonesia with self-driving cars to help solve its traffic woes?

In April, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motor Corp. announced they are developing a vehicle with AI that is “Internet-connected.” Instead of supplying self-driving cars, might South Korea supply Indonesia with the software and platforms behind these vehicles?

More on Asian Robotics:

Asian robotics expands

As South Korea and ASEAN expand their new partnerships, opportunities open up for businesses looking to tap the Asian robotics market.

Where could Indonesia and South Korea’s self-driving partnership lead next — addressing air pollution, garbage collection, and mail delivery?

When most westerners think about Asian robotics partnerships, they look to Japan and China, and maybe India. But organizations should not overlook relationships such as that between South Korea and ASEAN.

Of course, as South Korea helps build the robotics market in Southeast Asia, it could be creating the next wave of Asian robotics powers, just as the U.S. has worried about job losses from industrial automation in South Korea and elsewhere.