Robots to the rescue
The Covid-19 pandemic has sped up the adoption of android technology
Driven by the coronavirus pandemic, service robots are gathering steam among medical, retail and eatery sectors as a way to address social distancing measures.
The adoption is also being supported by the availability of 5G network and lower costs of the involved technology.
"We can turn the Covid-19 crisis into opportunity as the pandemic will fast forward the digital economy and Industry 4.0 in Thailand to take shape by next year, instead of 5-6 years in the earlier projection," said Djitt Laowattana, executive advisor for the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) Office of Thailand.
The robotic and automation market is valued at 600-700 billion baht, he said, adding foreign firms are interested in investing in Thailand, particularly the EEC, partly because the country is willing to leverage robots in business operations.
Before the pandemic, robots were mostly used in the manufacturing sector but the crisis has now pushed up the use of robots in service and medical sectors. Thailand also has engineers, academics and system integrators for robot creation.
Robots have now been deployed in hospitals to facilitate delivery of medical supplies and meals to patients and to assist physicians in remotely communicating with them for diagnosis to ward off risk of infection.
In other industries, robots have been more used in warehouses for logistics operations, restaurants for food serving as well as retail spaces for temperature checks and navigation.
To equip robots with medical devices, there is a need to take into account healthcare standard compliance, Mr Djitt said.
The 5G network coverage will also be a boon for the communication between robots and control rooms as the set-up of WiFi networks to cover large areas would be more costly.
Mr Djitt said robotics researchers can benefit from their robot projects through the profit-sharing agreement they make with private companies which use them.
A MuM II-fitted UV disinfection robot is deployed to get rid of germs.
MEDICAL ASSISTANCE ROBOTS
Universities are playing a crucial part in developing robots for healthcare purposes.
Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Engineering rolled out "CU-RoboCovid" project with a range of robots that can assist medical personnel in treating patients at hospital.
"Pinto" robots can be used to deliver meals to patients. Ninja robots can be used to serve as a communication tool between physicians and patients and fitted with medical devices that can help doctors examine patients' health conditions remotely.
Krajok (mirror) robots, integrated with a tablet, can be used by patients to seek assistance from healthcare workers.
"We got requirements from medical staff in the field and designed them by using simple materials for robot components," said Witaya Wannasuphoprasit, an engineering lecturer who is behind the project.
"Robots are equipped with an automated navigation system and they are easy to use by medical staff."
Ninja robots were developed even before the pandemic, he said. It was designed to care for patients suffering from stroke or the elderly, including monitoring blood pressure, temperature and heart pulse.
"This was designed to serve the ageing society," Mr Witaya said.
Through donation, some 200 robotic devices are planned to be produced to support medical work.
The Institute of Field roBOtics (FIBO) of King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi also came up with "FIBO Against Covid-19" project that provides a series of robots that can serve as communication tools and facilitate food and medicine delivery in public hospitals with the ability to navigate by themselves.
The robots are fitted with a multi-functional mobility (MuM II) system, where they can perform various tasks, such as disinfecting by UV-C sterilizer light as well as delivering food, medicine and hazardous substances.
Wuttichai Visarnkuna of the institute said 5G-enabled robots are being developed with more capability, including opening doors and using elevators. They will be integrated with artificial intelligence (AI) and controlled via the cloud.
Mr Djitt, also the founder of FIBO, said platforms for robotics development is crucial, adding an open platform would open the doors for more innovation and support knowledge exchange for use cases.
A cloud-based platform with an open application program interface (API) will make it easier for developers to increase new features and enable the remote control of robots.
In medical robotics, such as telemedicine, specialists can perform diagnosis from images from endoscopes or symptoms of patients who may live far away.
A customer engages with a robot in front of a snack counter.
Chalermpon Punnotok, chief executive of CT Asia Robotics, a local robot maker under "Dinsow" brand, said Dinsow robots have been developed into the fourth generation and efforts have been made to highlight the character of the robots to boost brand awareness.
The company's robots are now used for serving food at MK restaurants as well as a companions for the elderly with multiple functions, including notifying them about medicine intake, serving as a communication tool and sending an alert when a senior citizen falls.
Its elderly care robots are also sold in Japan.
Mr Chalermpon said it was previously difficult to sell locally made robots to Thai customers due to the lack of trust so it reached out to customers for elderly care robots in Japan, particularly in rural areas.
As robots can be sold in Japan, it makes it easier to market them in Thailand, he said. "We think out of the box in this regard," he said.
In the early days when Dinsow was hardly sold, the company earned money from adverts placed on the robots' body.
During the Covid-19 outbreak, the company's robots were deployed at Suvarnabhumi airport to conduct temperature checks of passengers.
The firm is developing an electronic nose for breast cancer detection and microneedles for blood sugar tests. "Robots are nothing without applications," said Mr Chalermpon. "The right application needs to be created for users' requirements."
Mahisorn Wongphati, managing director of HG Robotics Co, a 4-year-old local startup, said his company has a fighting spirit to grow in the world of robots.
"We believe in free trade but need some regulations that might favour local businesses to grow and expand overseas," said Mr Mahisorn.
He said hospitals in Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines are interested in the company's medical service robots.
The firm's core business lies in drones for agriculture, AI-driven security tools and submarine pipeline inspection autonomous underwater vehicles.
Pasan Kulvanit, a research scientist at the Department of Science Service, said to build trust for locally made robots among Thai users, robot qualification standards must be ensured to boost confidence.
In the case where no specific standard is required, common specs that all parties can accept must be taken into account.
"Product brands that gain accreditation would make users decide to get them faster," said Mr Pasan.
As robotics adoption is on the rise, mobile operators are jumping into the market with academic and strategic partners.
Somchai Lertsutiwong, chief executive of Advanced Info Service (AIS), the country's largest mobile operator by subscribers, said the company applies 5G and AI tech to public health telemedicine and robot-assisted healthcare, such as AI-assisted CT scan and mobile stroke unit.
Ekaraj Panjavinin, managing director of IoT and digital solutions of True Digital Group, indicated the pandemic is likely to boost robotics adoption for commercial use within two years instead of 4-5 years in the previous projection, particularly for service robotics.
The group has recently rolled out 5G-connected "True Digital RoboCore", which is Thailand's first unified intelligent robotics solutions through Robot as a Service (RaaS) subscription model.
Subscribers can have pay-per-use flexibility which allows adjustment according to demand.
True leverages its digital convergence integrating advanced technologies including IoT, analytics, AI, blockchain, cybersecurity and 5G infrastructure -- bringing the integrated solutions for robot use in retail, hospitality, property, exhibition, airport, office building, hospitals.
The group also came up with a variety of robots, including greeting and service robots which can serve as receptionists with deep-learning and multi-tasking capability, cleaning robots, delivery robots, patrol robots as well as those providing environmental monitoring.
It also offers virtual robots for remote learning and AI rescue helmets for rescue mission.
A nurse-like robot facilitates online communication between a patient and a physician as part of efforts to ward off infection in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.