A robot took over duties of guiding visitors to exhibition booths at the China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair recently.
The “host” had no one in the background moving its parts by remote control. This robot is smart enough to “see” its surroundings because of laser radar embedded in the machine’s software.
Shanghai-based Slamtec manufactured the robot. The laser radar allows the robot to scan its surroundings in fractions of a second. It also has “brain” software to enable the robot to choose the best routes to guide visitors to a given exhibit.
Google’s driverless car is perhaps the best-known application of laser radar technology. The system accounts for almost one-third of the cost of Google driverless cars priced at about US$7,500, said Kong Huawei, Shanghai director at the Institute of Computing Technology of the Chinese Academy of Science.
“It is costly to develop radar fitting stringent requirements on precision and reaction speeds,” he said.
By tolerating some margin of error in what its robots can do, Slamtec has whittled the cost of laser radar systems to within 1,000 yuan (US$145), making the technology more accessible to common business and home applications.
The first robot vacuum cleaners were a big hit with householders a few years back. The robots bustled along floors, sucking up dirt and dust. When they hit a wall or piece of furniture, they automatically shifted course.
In the space of just a few years, that sweeper — called a “headless chicken” by one of my friends — is obsolete. The new versions have embedded radar.
“Vacuum cleaners have become a main beneficiary of cheaper laser radar technology,” said Lin Ling, chief strategy officer at Slamtec.
The new cleaners can scan the layout of a whole room and clean it in orderly routes, much like a human would, he said.
Slamtec expects sales of the sweepers to top 200 million yuan in the coming two years, said company founder Chen Shikai.
Google’s driverless car uses a radar system that scan the whole space around it rapidly. Slamtec uses a simpler radar sensor that catches pictures in two dimensions.
Other companies are stepping into the segment. Xiaomi, a domestic electronics company, said it has sold more than 55,000 radar-equipped robot sweepers in the past eight months at its official Tmall.com store. The sweepers costs 1,699 yuan each.
“The low price is no surprise because of the cheaper radar component nowadays in China,” Lin said.
On Zhihu, a Chinese crowd-source Q&A platform, information about Xiaomi’s sweeper attracted nearly 500,000 page views. In one post, a buyer complained that the machine is too noisy and that its laser radar went haywire after two days’ use.
“Even if our rivals found the same laser supplier as us, they haven’t mastered our industrial savvy,” Lin said.
Slamtec was started in 2013. Its name is derived from the technology called “simultaneous localization and mapping,” an algorithm that enables a robot to map an unknown environment while at the same time tracking its location.
The company has a patent that safeguards its application of the technology for at least five years.
The vacuum cleaner is only one common application of Slamtec technology. Across China, it has taken over 80 percent of the laser radar market, including robots in shopping malls, hospitals and banks, said founder Chen.
It even succeeded in an unmanned driving test for a Shenzhen-based automobile company by coupling laser radar with a navigation system.
“Our rivals have learned that high-quality laser radar can enable robots to ‘see’ clearly, but they are still struggling with how to make them walk,” Chen said.
Slamtec is now in a new round of fundraising, after it has secured 3 million yuan in 2014 from angel investment and went on to receive financing of US$10 billion in 2015.
China’s service-robot industry will grow over 15 percent annually in the coming two years, with the market valued at about 24 billion yuan this year, according to the China Robot Industry Alliance.
Sweeping robots alone could generate 7.5 billion yuan in sales this year and 12 billion yuan in 2018, according to China Electronics News.
Chen said his decision four years ago to give up a job at Microsoft and found Slamtec was the right one. “Sooner or later, robots will replace computers and mobile phones as the mainstream digital application,” he said.
At the Slamtec booth at this year’s technology fair, I asked over 10 visitors what they thought of the robot sweeper.
“If I can buy one for several hundred yuan, why not?” said one visitor.