The goal is to help the global robotics market grow to more than $30 billion by 2013 and to help Korean companies take as much as 10 percent of that market, according to Huh Kyung, Director General for Emerging Industry in the government’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which is responsible for regulating and overseeing high-tech industries in South Korea.
Robotics is one of the fastest-growing of Korea’s highly successful electronics and high-tech manufacturing sectors and will be one of the drivers of the country’s growth during the next five years, Korean officials said during the announcement.
The First Basic Plan for Intelligent Robots calls for Korea to be one of the top three producers of robotic products by 2013 and the leading producer by 2018. That would total more than $1 billion U.S. for export and $3 billion for internal consumption.
The Republic of Korea has treated its IT infrastructure and industries as key drivers of economic growth since the mid-1990s, and committed itself to promoting the service robotics industry in 2004, according to Dan Kara, president and editor of Robotics Business Review.
At that time the Korean economic ministry put in place a strategy called IT839, whose goal was to build a robust internal IT networking infrastructure, and promote specific high-tech industries, including service robotics. It invested $264 million over five years in 16 projects designed to boost the domestic intelligent robotics industry, Kara said.
The effort, and Korea’s robotics manufacturers, have been remarkably successful, according to Kara.
“I’m not surprised the [Korean] government sees robotics as a driver for the economy,” agreed Barbara Coffey, analyst at financial services firm Kaufman Brothers. “The South Korean market has been a huge winner in cell phones and other electronics. They’ve been a leader in digital broadcasts and in uses for small devices, so they’re probably in a good position for robotics as well, as far as manufacturing and research [capabilities].”
One reason the market is open to Korea is the relatively slow pace with which U.S. manufacturers have developed robots for non-traditional, non-industrial manufacturing, she said.
Globally, the bulk of spending on robotics products is on the kind of industrial robots that weld a car-door seam or place a microchip and do spot-soldering on computer motherboards, according to Daniela Rus, professor of computer science and engineering at MIT ad associate director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Speaking at last week’s RoboBusiness conference in Boston, Rus predicted that the market for service robots alone would grow from about $600 million in 2002 to more than $52 billion by 2025, largely driven by the need to care for increasingly elderly populations in both the U.S. and in Asian countries, including Korea and Japan.
Japan is by far the most aggressive adopter and producer of robotic technology, Rus said, though Korea is among the leaders as well. By comparison, both adoption and production of robots in the U.S. is “dismal,” Rus said.
Despite its advantages in electronics manufacturing in general and robotics in particular, however, Korea won’t have the market all to itself in the next half decade, according to both Rus and Lindsay Voss, analyst for Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, Tex.
U.S. spending on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and other robotic military systems outstrips other market sectors, Voss said.
“During the next few years, though, as we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be much less of a need to procure UAVs,” Voss said. “Unless we get involved in a conflict with someone else, there will be some pretty big players – General Atomics, AAI, Northrup Grumman – making a big push to sell UAVs for civilian applications. That will probably change the market quite a lot.”
Civilian applications include things like land surveying, agricultural applications such as crop dusting, monitoring of a crop’s progress, and keeping an eye on extensive real-estate holdings – few of which would require much change from the military versions of existing UAVs, Voss said.
“There are corporations going out to buy a lot of farmland, and they have a need a cheap way to see what’s going on with it or crop dust, or whatever. UAVs make a huge amount of sense for that,” Voss said.
Korea’s plan focuses more heavily on the service sector, breaking down its view of the robotics market into three major sectors, according to the level of sophistication and type of function for which the robots are designed. The first is manufacturing, education and cleaning.
The second is for more sophisticated robots designed for entertainment, firefighting, elder care, transportation and other complex tasks that require a high degree of capability and autonomy.
The third covers unmanned air or water vehicles, human-body analogs and wearable robotic prosthetics to aid amputees or those with problems walking.
The government will increase spending on research and development into robotics by 10 percent next year, to push the total it spends on R&D over $10 billion U.S., according to the South Asian Arirang News.
It will also introduce competitions for students and professional designers, and promote robotic-themed amusement parks. The government expects the investment to create more than 14,000 jobs.