How is Singapore supporting Robotics?
Whatever places Singapore in the forefront on the world stage, this island-nation is interested to invest in. That is why it is deeply committed to building a reputation as an innovator in robotics and intelligent machines.
Here is a look at what Singapore is doing to support the advancement of robotics in this next phase of the digital revolution.
In order for robotics to thrive, it requires an entire ecosystem of support that includes Artificial Intelligence (AI), digital innovation and smart technology. Singapore is already establishing itself as a centre for AI experimentation and innovation. It has invested heavily in digital infrastructure. In addition, it is a highly connected nation. 97% of its population has access to fast and reliable internet connectivity.
This drive towards technology has drawn industry leaders in this area to its shores, helping to enrich the locals’ understanding and appreciation of robotics. In 2015, Singapore held the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. Self-driving golf carts that could carry passengers while navigating winding paths with pedestrian and cyclists were showcased at the event.
In November 2016, the city hosted the first Singapore International Robo Expo (SIRE). 2,000 people from 26 nations participated. Other global gatherings have since followed – Inside 3D Printing Singapore and Manufacturing Technology Asia (MTA).
Research into future technology is big on the island-state’s agenda. In 2006, Singapore set up the National Research Foundation under the Prime Minister’s Office. Apart from developing policies and strategies for research, innovation and enterprise and providing funding, NRF also coordinates research throughout the government and across various industries.
NRF builds connections with robotics researchers around the world, too. One of its key initiatives is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a partnership between NRF and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The programme offers four-year graduate fellowships which cover tuition for students at the affiliated schools as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.
Singapore is also home to Asia’s first centre for testing and developing new manufacturing technologies. The Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) is led by the country’s main R&D body, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in partnership with Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The collaboration aims to increase the adoption of advanced processes and robotics.
There are other robotics research facilities as well including research universities like NTU, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Polytechnic (SP). These have seen several breakthroughs.
NTU’s Robotics Research Centre developed a revolutionary bio-inspired robotic sock. The wearable tech has soft actuators that mimic the tentacle movements of corals that promote blood circulation by helping lower leg muscles to contract, preventing bedridden people from developing deep vein thrombosis.
NTU also partnered Singapore-based engineering firm, Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd, to form an advanced robotics and autonomous systems laboratory. The collaboration is aimed at developing the next generation of robots through new technologies, generating new products and services, and increasing employment opportunities for researchers and scientists while providing exposure to students in industrial R&D.
At NUS, the Advanced Robotics Centre introduced a swan-like GPS-guided robot that can take water measurements and transmit the results wirelessly while being entirely unobtrusive.
At the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology, a research facility at NUS, surgical robots and robotic devices that help people cope with injuries and disabilities have been developed. One such device is a portable knee-ankle-foot robot designed for gait rehabilitation.
Singapore has actively courted foreign talents to share their knowledge and expertise in robotics. As a result, German multinational software corporation, SAP, opened an innovation centre in Singapore in 2016. The centre is part of SAP’s global network that works with students to promote science and technology for solutions for cancer patients.
Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, opened a research facility at NTU to look into how AI can help improve healthcare and city planning in Singapore. The Alibaba-NTU Singapore Joint Research Institute is part of a five-year partnership.
NETWORKING & PARTNERSHIPS
Understanding the importance of networking and partnership to foster exchange of ideas and provide support, Singapore has created several platforms for such purposes. Launchpad Robotics Centre was established in 2018 to let start-ups in the robotics and automation sector have greater access to support, innovative technologies and communication networks. The 1,600-square-foot centre has a marker space with a range of equipment, co-working spaces and even a display area.
There are private platforms as well. The Singapore Industrial Automation Association (SIAA) is one such organisation propelling the country’s robotics endeavours. Its 500 active members companies and professional include most of the Republic’s major automation and electronics businesses and Singapore-based units of several international manufacturers. SIAA brings these players in automation, IoT and robotics in the business community together through events such as sharing sessions, study trips and collaborations.
The Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence (RACE) is a not-for-profit training academy set up by Singapore-based PBA (Precision Bearings and Automation) Group. RACE helps smaller business and factory owners understand more about the various robotics solutions available through training, mentorship and partnerships. Companies can also try out robots before committing to purchases.
FUNDING & FINANCIAL SUPPORT
Singapore has been more than generous with funding. In 2016, it pledged over S$450 million across three years to support the National Robotics Programme (NRP). NRP promotes the adoption and development of robotics solutions in healthcare, construction, manufacturing and logistics.
The sum is part of an even larger initiative - Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE 2020) where S$19 billion has been set aside over five years to support and realise research in science and technology that will benefit the nation. In 2019, an extra S$540 million was allotted to RIE 2020. The top-up is for the creation of AI systems to identify patients predisposed to chronic diseases and to the building of robots to perform menial tasks as well as the development of wearable sensors that can help in the early intervention of heart failure. This brings the fund for research and development in AI, robotics and supercomputers to S$900 million.
Also introduced in 2016 alongside funds made available to the NRP is the Automation Support Package (ASP). ASP supports projects that involve large-scale deployment of automation solutions that improve productivity and manpower efficiency. It includes grant support for up to 50% of project costs, capped at S$1 million as well as 100% investment allowance and up to S$15 million in loans for automation equipment.
There are funds that, while not directly meant for robotics, can still be tapped on by companies looking to automate. The Enterprise Development Grant (EDG) supports companies in their efforts to upgrade, innovate or internationalise. It funds up to 70% of qualifying project costs such as third-party consultancy fees, software, equipment and internal manpower.
Another such fund is the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) reserved for projects that promote productivity by adopting technology. Companies can expect up to 70% funding support.
In addition, NRF offers funding for strategic initiatives that go towards transforming Singapore into a vibrant R&D hub.
In schools, robotics has moved beyond co-curricular activities and is now offered as part of core curriculum. In 2014, primary and secondary schools received S$2.8 million from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and SP to support robotics and computer coding education as part of the Robotics and Maker Academy. The programme, which lasted till 2017, gave 10,000 students from 30 schools the opportunity to understand technology through hands-on exercises and exposed them to computation thinking.
Postgraduate students can also look to training at a centre set up by US software firm, Salesforce, in various fields in AI such as natural language processing and deep learning where computers are taught to learn by example. The centre is the company’s first AI research centre out of its R&D hub in California.
Meanwhile, workers are being trained to embrace robots in their workplace and acquire skills so they can adapt to new technology. There are several courses on robotics available at institutes of higher learning and through the national SkillsFuture programme.
For an ageing society with intentions to improve productivity to create a sustainable and viable economy, and a secure and convenient urban environment robotics is an obvious solution. This is something Singapore is holding to with laser-sharp focus.