November 20, 2016      

Sanbot, a cloud-connected service robot already used in customs and other applications in China, is coming to the U.S. in early 2017.

Qihan Technology Co. was founded in 2006 and spent its first seven years focused on the vision business.

“We developed and produced cameras, and we have filed 100 patents in video,” said Ryan Wu, chief marketing officer at Shenzhen, China-based Qihan. “We recognized vision as a most important technology in robotics.”

“Based on our image-recognition technology, multi-access console, and cloud server, we moved into the robot business in 2012,” he told Robotics Business Review during a visit to New York.

Business takeaways:

  • Qihan Technology Co., which got its start in video technology, says it’s the No. 1 service robot provider in China.
  • Qihan’s Sanbot is already in use in Chinese airports and hospitals under a robots-as-a-service, or RaaS, model.
  • As the company prepares to launch Sanbot in the U.S., it is working with partners and recognizing market differences.

Sanbot’s three components

The roughly humanoid Sanbot began production last year, but it is only part of Qihan’s offering, Wu said.

“The first part of the robot is hardware,” he noted. Qihan’s Donkey is a cleaning robot and mobile camera intended for the household consumer.

“The second part is the cloud server,” Wu explained. “The ‘cloud brain’ is part of our plan to make our robots clever.”

For voice-recognition and translation capabilities — the customs robot communicates in 25 languages — Qihan has talked with IBM Watson, Nuance Communications, Amazon, and Google.

“Because Sanbot is very complex, we have our own core technology, but we’ve cooperated on language recognition,” Wu said.

“The third and most important part of robot is the applications,” he said. “The company’s vision is to use artificial intelligence to help people improve their quality of life.”

“We can offer customers mobile apps through the Q-Link console to interact with robots remotely,” he added. “The robot must add value; if the intelligent terminal comes without content, it’s useless.”

Qihan relies on developer ecosystem

“Our most valuable partners are developers, integrators, and operators,” he said. “We established a development platform using open APIs [application programming interfaces] based on ROS [the Robot Operating System] so that they can develop apps for our robots easily.”

“We are the robot manufacturer, but we’ve paid a lot of attention to the developer platform so that apps can be created by vertical,” Wu said. “End users are working on their own software.”

Sanbot includes an Android SDK (software developer’s kit) and its sensors are expected to tie into the emerging Internet of Things (IoT).

Different global markets for Sanbot

Qihan is the No. 1 service robot supplier in China, according to Wu. “We have delivered more than 70,000 units into the Chinese market,” he said.

“Sanbot is already in use in two airports in China, as well as government departments and hospitals,” Wu added. “Our government projects such as customs inspection and facial recognition are big because the government has high quality demands.”

“These kinds of uses cases are milestones for our robot, but there are more applications in education, security, retail, and hospitality,” he said.

Qihan's Sanbot is looking to expand to new markets.

Qihan’s Sanbot will soon be available in both the U.S. and Europe.

In September, Qihan launched Sanbot in the European market at the IFA Expo in Berlin.

Qihan plans to officially enter the U.S. market around the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in January. Shipments will begin right after the convention in Las Vegas.

“The U.S. is the biggest consumer market in the world,” Wu said. “We’ve been visiting partners, and we’re very excited to have business in the U.S.”

“During this trip, we see that the U.S. and Chinese markets are quite different,” he said. “For instance, apps will be different between commercial and hobbyist end users.”

“In healthcare, we mainly sell to public hospitals in China, but in the U.S., most hospitals are private,” explained Wu. “The doctor and patient expectations are very different, so we need to develop applications accordingly.”

“In retail, our Chinese partners mainly use the robot for marketing, promotion, product information delivery,” he said. “In the U.S., there are only a few salespeople in Walmart or Best Buy, so the robots would do more jobs, like answering inquiries, helping visitors find goods.”

“Even in healthcare and retail, the real apps are very different,” Wu said. “We need to redesign apps.”

More on Service Robots and RaaS:

Sanbot through RaaS

“We’re still working on acceptable pricing with local distributors, but we expect to see more and more Sanbots in the U.S.,” he added. “The price has two parts, hardware and service.”

The hardware costs about $5,000 in China, and service costs under a robots-as-a-service (RaaS) model will depend on the vertical industry and related applications.