How is Robotics Changing Life in Singapore?
The smart tray return robots may be the most visible robots in the country but they are by no means the only ones. Robots are steadily becoming part of Singapore society and economy.
Here are some ways they are changing the way we live, work and play.
One of the key pillars driving Singapore’s economic growth, manufacturing is where robotics has taken firm root. Singapore has the second most automated workplace in the world, behind only South Korea. According to an International Federation of Robotics report, the nation has 488 industrial robots for every 10,000 workers. Findings by advisory, broking and solutions firm Willis Towers Watson noted that the number is expected to double by 2020 to account for 29% of all work done by companies in the country.
Already, Singapore precision engineering firm PBA Group has been using the patent-pending Golden Retriever Automated Robot (AMR). The advanced goods-to-person technology automates inventory storage and replenishment; and transports items within production, warehouse, fulfilment and distribution centres.
Panasonic Singapore uses robots in its manufacturing operations. Over three years, this has led to higher skills and productivity for its workers and a rise of median salary by 35%.
Czech manufacturer in Singapore, Multi-Wing CZ, uses cobots that work alongside employees in the production line of its tailor-made ventilation systems for radiators and other markets. The cobots handle strenuous, repetitive tasks so the human employees can take on more rewarding responsibilities. Smart automation has allowed the company to speed up production and manage space constraints. Its production capacity increased by 336 hours per year while production costs dropped by 10% to 20%. In addition, the cobots can be deployed without safety barriers and so reduce the amount of workspace needed.
In anticipation of future needs in Singapore and worldwide – there will be an expected 3 million industrial robots globally by 2020 – local companies are already moving into robot production. PBA Group partnered Fortune 500 Korean industrial robot company, Hanwha Robotics, to launch a robot production facility in 2018. They manufacture the Hanwha Collaborative Robot which can pick and place items, palletise, screw-drive, polish and dispense.
Singapore start-up SESTO Robotics has also jumped onto the bandwagon. It is working to develop robots that automate traditionally labour-intensive work in factories, particularly those in semiconductor manufacturing. These robots are being designed to manage materials between work stations and move bulky items in warehouses.
Perhaps of greatest interest to Singapore is the use of robots in healthcare. With an ageing population – 13.7% of its people are 65 and older – the country runs the real risk of an elderly population with complex diseases living a longer time but with few caregivers available. There is an urgent need to use technology to both meet medical manpower needs and make healthcare more efficient and effective.
Since 2007, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) has been using a prostate interventional procedure robot to conduct prostate biopsies. Mona Lisa, the collaborative effort of doctors at the hospital and engineers at NTU, draws samples through the perineum instead of the rectum. This provides up to 90% accuracy and also greatly lowers the odds of infection compared to manual methods.
From 2013, over 15 healthcare institutions including two public hospitals – Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and National University Hospital (NUH) - have been using robotic drug storage and dispensing machines. These robots retrieve medicine from cabinets when prescriptions have been filled, update stocks and send out alerts when supplies are low. They also print and label medicine with patients’ details.
Changi General Hospital has a robot porter that delivers documents, drugs, specimens and linen independently.
Robot masseuse Emma works at NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic. She gives back and knee massages with a robotic arm equipped with soft silicon tips that are warmed to body temperature to mimic human touch.
There are more innovations in the pipeline. Stroke patients may soon have wearable robotic systems to rehabilitate them and help them in their daily routine. The ExoGlove is a robotic glove that draws inspiration from the movement of coral tentacles. It has soft actuators that can contract, extend and bend like the coral tentacles and help define movement with the use of air pressure. Its counterpart is a robotic sock that helps bedridden patients that improve blood flow and ankle mobility with robot-assisted ankle-foot exercises. This prevents deep vein thrombosis. Both wearable technology are undergoing clinical trials.
Under development also is a wearable sensor that lets healthcare professionals remotely monitor a patient’s mental state, movement and strength. This can prove useful in preventing suicides and make early intervention of other ailments easier.
NTU and TTSH are jointly working on a handheld acoustic sensor which looks like a stethoscope. Placed on a patient’s chest and paired with a smartphone app, the device can detect excess fluid in the lungs. A patent is pending for the device which has over 92% accuracy.
Singapore’s service industry, which suffers from chronic manpower shortage, has turned to robots as well. Apart from smart tray return robots at food courts, robots are being used to clean floors at coffee shops as well. FoodTastic at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1 uses a red Elmo-looking automatic floor cleaning robot to help its human cleaners.
Rong Heng Seafood Restaurant at East Coast Park made the news in 2016 when it introduced robot waiters to meet its manpower needs. The robots, which speak Mandarin, deliver food, collect dirty dishes and can even entertain diners.
The world’s first socially autonomous robot, Nadine, created by scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is a receptionist at the Institute of Media Innovation (IMI). 1.7 metres tall and bearing a remarkable resemblance to its creator Professor Nadia Thalmann, director of IMI, Nadine can express moods and emotions, recognise faces, remember past conversations, and react to situations.
DBS Bank has a chatbot that interacts through Facebook Messenger. It can answer customers’ banking questions, provide answers about products and services, dispense advice on spending and make payments.
At Crosscoop Singapore, a humanoid robot named Nao sits at the reception providing information on a range of topics from preferred accounting firms to where to eat.
Robots are working in hotels, too. Park Avenue Rochester Hotel uses robots with driverless technology for deliveries. Named Robie, the robot assists in housekeeping by delivering duvets, pillow cases and towels; and transporting waste and bulky items between floors. Its robot co-worker is Cobie. The automated steward delivers food to guests in their rooms and can handle up to three food deliveries a trip.
M Social’s driverless technology robot is called Aura. The Philippe Starck-designed hotel uses the robot butler to deliver bottled water, fresh towels and toiletries to guests. Aura has a robot co-worker employed in the kitchen. Ausca is a front-of-house autonomous service chef robot that prepares eggs for guests at the hotel’s restaurant, Beast and Butterflies.
Sofitel Singapore City Centre has its own robot butlers, too. Xavier and Sophie are responsible for delivering items to rooms and opening the mini bars. The ever-smiling robots can speak, answer questions and move independently using Wi-Fi sensors to find their way to the rooms. The hotel has two housekeeping i-robots as well that help provide back-of-the-house services to guests.
At Hotel Jen, robots Jeno and Jena ride lifts and deliver amenities and in-room meals to guests. Equipped with advanced sensors, they can avoid obstacles in their paths and can even make phone calls to guests’ rooms.
YOTEL Singapore’s Yoshi and Yolanda robots are the first in the world with Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM). Programmed to move autonomously and even take lifts to make deliveries to guests, they come with touchscreen, motion sensors and compartments for storage. Both robots have their own unique personalities and voices as well as facial expressions.
Andaz Singapore Hotel by Hyatt piloted a chatbot that helps customers from pre-booking right to their entire stay. The chatbot can attend to requests, and make recommendations on places of interest and food destinations.
At schools, students are not just learning robotics, they are learning from robots. Nao, who works at Crosscoop Singapore, was tested at MY World Preschool in Bukit Panjang where it taught children through dance.
My First Skool Jurong Point was part of a six-month trial in which Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by Japanese corporation Softbank Robotics, taught the preschool’s six-year-olds. Using interactive activities such as stories, memory games, songs and dances, Pepper assisted the teachers in making lessons effective and fun.
Little ones are not the only beneficiaries of robot teachers. In 2014, Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at Mei Ling Street became the first to test out RoboCoach. The human-sized social robot developed by Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) students led the elderly in exercises using motion sensing technology. Since then, more RoboCoaches have been built and sent to work as companion bots.
Apart from being able to work longer than humans, robots can go where it is unsafe for humans to. This makes them eminently suitable for dangerous jobs. In 2018, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) unveiled a new portable emergency responder robot, the Red Rhino Robot or 3R. 3R has autonomous firefighting capabilities and is set to work in teams with three other human firefighters. Also introduced was a Life Detection Robot which can help rescuers detect human life in urban search and rescue missions.
In July 2015, a swan-like GPS-guided robot drew much attention when it was introduced. Designed to blend in with its surroundings, the robot can take critical water quality measurements and transmit the results to researchers wirelessly. Because it is guided by GPS, the robot will not check the same area twice, making it highly efficient.
Most may not think about it but Singapore already has robots in many homes in the form of robot vacuum cleaners. The robots powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) are part of a slew of consumer robots that include lawn mowers and pool cleaners. Nearly 100 million of these are expected to be shipped worldwide between 2015 and 2020 according to market intelligence firm Tratica.