COVID-19 pandemic expands roles of advanced robots in everyday life

Robotics has long been in the spotlight as a new growth engine in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Robots themselves are being assimilated rapidly into everyday life amid the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic as more firms see their future in automation.

They are still predominantly used in manufacturing, accounting for more than half of the market; but their presence is increasing in the services sector, such as with delivery companies, restaurants, hotels and banks, and are even augmenting people as drivers and rescue workers.

This being the case, conglomerates are pushing to introduce state-of-the art robotics technologies as future growth engines for their businesses.

“After the virus outbreak, companies are increasingly releasing service robots to minimize face-to-face contact. Firms are capitalizing on the contactless trend and their service quality can be enhanced with more robots being introduced,” said Park Il-woo, a director at the Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement (KIRIA).

The robotics industry can be roughly divided into two sectors ― industrial and services use ― with industrial robots accounting for the largest portion to date.

Market tracker Strategy Analytics forecast the value of the global service robot market to expand to $122 billion in 2024 from $31 billion in 2019. Service robots perform useful tasks for people not only in industrial settings, but also at home doing household chores, at stores guiding customers, at banks helping people make deposits and at retail stores stocking shelves. Professional service robots are used for specific commercial tasks operated by experts, such as surgery and firefighting.

Sales by Korea’s robotics industry amounted to 5.3 trillion won ($4.6 billion) in 2019, according to data released in March by KIRIA, which supervises the country’s industrial robotics policies.

The agency said industrial robots accounted for 52.5 percent (2.94 trillion won) of the total, followed by robotics parts and software accounting for 34.8 percent, service robots for the business-to-business market accounting for 6.4 percent and personal services robots accounting for 6.3 percent.

Among companies that are trying to nurture their robotics businesses, LG Group is way ahead of the pack and has already swiftly introduced a diverse range of robots.

Since he took the helm of LG Group in 2018, Chairman Koo Kwang-mo placed the robotics business as one of the conglomerate’s cash-cow projects along with artificial intelligence (AI) technology and automotive electronics.

The latest example of such efforts came July 13, when key affiliate LG Electronics unveiled a new delivery robot that can function both indoors and outdoors.

At the 18th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, the company introduced the four-wheeled robot that can adapt to changing terrains.

LG Electronics, which has already commercialized indoor delivery robots, will continue testing the new robot until the end of the year. “The new robot will bring a huge change to the logistics industry as various kinds of tasks in delivering goods will be simplified when the robot is commercialized,” a company official said.

Hanwha Group’s construction arm, Hanwha E&C, recently joined hands with Woowa Brothers, which runs the food-delivery app, Baemin, to create robots that can handle deliveries at an apartment complex the conglomerate constructed in Seoul. Robots deliver food ordered through Baemin to the doorstep of each resident at Forena Apartments.

Hyundai Motor Group also wowed the automotive industry in December by announcing that Chairman Chung Euisun will acquire a controlling stake in the U.S.-based robotics company, Boston Dynamics, for $880 million.

Boston Dynamics is famous for its dog-like robots. Hyundai Motor Group said the decision was made to beef up the capability of its future mobility business as the U.S. firm’s technology will be used to develop autonomous driving and safety features. To achieve these goals, the automotive group will invest 60.1 trillion won by 2025.

Early this year, Hyundai Motor Group introduced a customer services robot, DAL-e, at its car showroom in southern Seoul. Equipped with the group’s latest technologies, including AI, facial recognition and an automatic communication system, the robot serves as a receptionist guiding visitors around the showroom.

Korea’s largest telecommunications company, KT, has also designated robotics as a new growth driver. Last year, KT invested 50 billion won in Hyundai Robotics, a division of Hyundai Heavy Industries Group that has the largest share of the country’s industrial robot market.

After the investment, KT launched its “5G Smart Factory Industrial Robot” service, which combines KT’s 5G network, cloud computing and smart factory automation systems. Targeting the personal services robot market, KT is also scheduled to roll out “pet” robots.

“As robots are the optimum platform for applying AI-based technologies and symbolize future industrial innovation, we will continue to innovate the digital transformation of companies in various fields based on our AI capabilities,” Lee Sang-ho, head of KT’s AI robot business, said.

The director of KIRIA estimated the country’s robotics industry will continue to evolve with the development of AI and super-fast network technologies.

“There’s a lot more that robots can do with advanced AI and faster network technologies. These technologies are essential for the development of the robotics industry, because robots can do more things as companies accumulate more data,” he said.

Speaking of the future of the robotics industry, the director said the industry would grow into a support sector that helps firms nurture their flagship businesses.

“Since its inception, the robotics industry has progressed as a tool that supports companies to expand their main businesses, such as in the manufacture of semiconductors, vehicles, displays and ships. In the services sector, robots are helping firms more easily communicate with their customers. In manufacturing, robots will be increasingly able to handle dangerous, dirty and routine jobs to improve the working environment for human employees and productivity,” the director added.