23 May 2019

Country Focus: Singapore – Economic concerns drive big ambitions

Singapore sees itself as a pioneer and is certainly seeking to prove bigger is not always better. Today Singapore is a densely packed regional financial hub with a population of some 5.7 million.

By David Cowan

Tendofyan / Shutterstock.com

However, its ambition is to position itself as a gateway for Asian robotics. Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s trade and industry minister, says his country is an “ideal destination” for foreign companies working to innovate in robotics, artificial intelligence and unmanned systems, as well as design thinking. The country is already deploying robotics in a number of industries, chiefly construction, healthcare, and transportation.

And it is putting its money where its ambition is. Singapore is allocating S$724 million ($535 million) under the current plan to transform its economy with a focus on research and innovation companies able to open up new market space and create jobs. This includes S$500 million for digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, super-computing and robotics under the current five-year plan, which ends in 2020. The city-state is also planning to roll out artificial intelligence and cloud-based solutions to every business sector by 2020.

A focal point for robotics in Singapore is The National Robotics Programme, which was announced in 2015 and then scaled up a year later with a pledge of more than $450 million to support it over the following three years. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat explained developing and deploying new technologies to solve problems that are relevant for the entire industry can drive industry-level transformation. “Robotics technology,” he said, “can enable citizens to work more effectively in a tight labour market, and can also create more high value-added jobs.”

Two challenges are driving robotics in Singapore: labour shortages and economic uncertainty. Singapore’s banks face a huge crisis if capital outflows are not managed, in part due to the slowdown in China. This is pushing efforts towards new sectors to drive the economy, and hopes are that robotics will improve productivity and speed economic development. In recent years the government has been addressing the problem that foreign workers are taking jobs that could go to locals and wants to “level the playing field”. However, locals don’t want the jobs that foreign workers take because they are perceived to pay worse and be lower in social status. It is here that robots are being tested in a range of local industries.


A real Robocop?

Singapore's security robot is a four-wheeled device that moves independently along a pre-defined route. It has flashing red and blue lights that increase visibility, but the bot also features onboard obstacle-avoidance technology. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the security robot is one of its main cameras, attached to a long, thin component attachment that moves up and down and lets the camera swivel around. The robot can get 360-degree views of its surroundings with the integrated cameras, then send footage to human members of the police force. 

The robot can analyze video and record audio. Moreover, there's an interactive component that allows people to press a button on the front of the robot and talk to a human if they notice suspicious activities. The robot's cameras come in handy then too. For example, if a person sees an individual involved in vandalism, they can describe what they witness, then point in the general direction of the wrongdoing. That process allows the robot's cameras to gather enough information to send officers to the scene. This technology won't replace law enforcement officers, but it should free them up to do other things.



In the food industry, Singapore is testing robot waiting staff to tackle the fact that about 90 per cent of businesses in the city-state’s food and beverage sector are struggling to find workers. Chilli Padi Nonya Cafe has used robots to collect used dishes from customers and take them to the kitchen for cleaning. Timbre has tested autonomous drones in its restaurant to speed the delivery of food. Rong Heng Seafood Restaurant has deployed two robots called “Lucy” and “Mary” running tasks including delivering food to the table. Koufu, a Singaporean restaurant chain, tested robots last year which patrol a shopping mall food court to collect dirty trays from customers and take them to the washing area. Hotels are also considering robots to deal with worker shortages. The Park Avenue Rochester Hotel last year announced that it would be deploying robots to deliver water, linens, food, and more. The hotel is turning to robots is because it has a housekeeping staff of 22 but the workload of 40. 


In healthcare, three organizations in Singapore have invested a combined $78.6 million (U.S.) since 2014 and launched the Rehabilitation Research Institute of Singapore. The objective of the institute is to invest in technologies to solve healthcare labour shortages, with one of the main focus areas being clinical robots. The Tan Tock Seng Hospital began using an AI-enabled system that uses small robots to dispense medicine, resulting in an 80% drop in dispensing time for pharmacists.


Meet Nadine

Nadine started work at the Nanyang Technological University. She wears a black dress, has flowing brunette hair and soft skin, as well as her own distinct personality and will make eye contact with you. She can recognise you and also remember your past conversations. Nadine is a life-like socially intelligent robot working as a receptionist at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Institute of Media Innovation. She is quick and programmed to work efficiently for long hours. Nadine can express moods and emotions, pioneering how robots interact and communicate with humans, but also posing a challenge to human employees. 

Nadine was created by a team of scientists headed by Professor Nadia Thalmann, director of the Institute of Media Innovation. Professor Thalmann explains, as a receptionist Nadine “can say goodbye and good morning, and keep a list of what to do. She will take documents we hand to her, read them and, being a computer, keep it filed. She will do it perfectly, and better than a standard receptionist.” The Nadine project seeks to address manpower needs in the administrative and healthcare sectors, not just as a receptionist but also in care areas such as assisting the elderly at home when caregivers are in short supply. Professor Thalmann says, “If you have a Nadine companion that can help you, give you medication, call others for you, it’s a dream.” 



In the construction business, JTC Corp. and Nanyang Technological University are collaborating to develop the Quality Inspection and Assessment Robot (QuicaBot). The autonomous QuicaBot is designed to help construction crews find defects in buildings, and can analyze rooms in the half the time it takes people. The team has  also worked on PictoBot, which can paint a wall up to a height of 10 metres 25% faster than humans and doesn’t need an overnight rest.


Self-driving cars have been a noteworthy area of robotics in Singapore. Last year, ride-hailing transport services company Grab announced it had partnered with US firm nuTonomy, which had already been testing self-driving cars in Singapore, in a deal giving nuTonomy’s access to Grab’s large customer base. The partnership offered free rides in self-driving cars to people within a designated area to test customer experience. Karl Iagnemma, the CEO of nuTonomy, said he expects Singapore to become the first market in the world for self-driving vehicles. This may lead to Singapore being one of the first to develop regulations for autonomous vehicles.


Environmental Pilot 

In March 2019, two flagship projects were first to be awarded under the National Environment Agency’s Environmental Robotics Programme, in line with NEA’s efforts to better optimise resources, drive innovation, push widespread technology adoption, and improve productivity across the environmental services industry. Two consortiums were selected to design, develop and trial Autonomous Environmental Service Vehicles (AESVs) for road cleaning. Trials are to begin in 2020 and each project will be carried out over a duration of 18 months, and will comprise a development phase over a period of 12 months, followed by a proof-of-concept (POC) trial over a six-month period. 

Each consortium will develop one AESV unit. The trials will be conducted in two stages. First, each consortium will be required to test and demonstrate the safety features of their AESV units within the enclosed circuit and protected environment of the CETRAN AV Test Centre. Second, each consortium will be allowed to commence trials on public roads at designated AV test sites such as one-north, once they have successfully passed a rigorous safety assessment. The AESVs are required to have on board at all times for the duration of the trials a safety driver trained to take immediate control of the vehicle, in accordance to strict operational protocols. Mr Tan Meng Dui, CEO of NEA said the projects are a significant milestone and will catalyse “the local robotics industry to build up expertise and experience in delivering environmental robotic solutions, which can then be commercialised and potentially exported.”



Singapore's drone regulations are being strengthened, with changes proposed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to include a compulsory online training programme, a pilot licensing scheme, as well as stricter requirements such as partial or full certification for heavier unmanned aircraft of more than 25kg, which presents a greater safety risk. Existing Singapore regulations ban the flying of drones within 5km of airports or military airbases, or at altitudes above 200 feet (about 60m), without a permit. Those found guilty face a fine of up to S$20,000 or up to 12 months in jail, or both. 

The Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min recently announced CAAS plans to develop a system to monitor unmanned aircraft. It will allow CAAS to check if individual drones are operating under a valid permit, and issue alerts to non-compliant pilots. CAAS head of unmanned aircraft systems Melvin Wong said, “With the technological advancements in unmanned aircraft over the past four years and given its increasing popularity, we felt it was timely to review and enhance the current regulatory framework.”

Laws, however, must go alongside educating the growing base of drone users on the need to follow regulations for safety's sake, according to industry figures. Mark Yong, CEO of drone flight management software firm Garuda Robotics, said, “If you told your neighbour that you were planning on buying a plane and flying it around your estate, they would probably call the police. But if you told them you were buying a drone to do the same thing, they might just ask if they can join you, since they don't understand the risks.”


Robot concierge

The Singapore Hotel Association (SHA) has helped to drive the adoption of innovative technologies to raise productivity among its members. In 2017, an initiative led by SHA, and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board through the Business Improvement Fund, brought together the hotel industry to call for tech solutions that overcome manpower shortfalls and enhance guests’ experience.  A  shortlist of solutions were then piloted at some 30 hotels.

One solution was a digital concierge system that functions as a chatbot with artificial intelligence. Piloted at Andaz Singapore Hotel, the chatbot named “Andy” instantaneously addresses common guest enquiries including dining and itinerary recommendations through the hotel’s Facebook messenger account. During the pilot period, the hotel was able to direct around 60 per cent of enquiries to Andy, freeing up front-desk staff to engage with guests with more complex needs. The hotel is now looking at plans to integrate Andy with its existing systems so that he can also process requests for room service, extra pillows and other hotel amenities.



Singapore has long sought to build a reputation of being a world leader in education, and robotics is being drafted into this strategy. The Singaporean government is investing in a robot called “KIBO,” which allows young children to program robots to perform different tasks. KinderLab Robotics Inc, based in the USA, makes KIBO, which raises concerns about whether Singapore can invest in education and its robotics ecosystem, but the question remains whether it builds its own or needs to import the expertise. The hope is that as Singapore develops a robotics niche, know-how and infrastructure, more companies and countries will gravitate to Singapore to test their robotics innovations in Asia. However, this does pit Singapore against other robotics powers, chiefly South Korea and Japan.


Changi Airport

Singapore’s Changi Airport has been voted the world’s best for the past six years by Skytrax. The airport has now built an entire terminal to help test the airport bots of the future. Changi opened its Terminal 4 last October partly with the idea of using its smallest and newest facility to test and develop automation. The goal is to have the automation working when its new Terminal 5 is operational. The new terminal 5 will handle 50 million passengers a year when it opens at the end of the next decade, making it one of the largest and most automated passenger terminals in the world.

The goal is clear. As a plane joins the line to land, it’s detected, identified and monitored by an array of cameras and technology that bypass the traditional control tower. Once at the gate, a laser-guided aerobridge positions itself to let passengers disembark, while automated vehicles unload baggage and deliver robot-packed meals. The passengers head to automated immigration turnstiles with face-scans and thumb-printing, then head to collect their luggage which baggage bots have already delivered to the carousel. Passengers then head out to get a driverless taxi. Like other areas of industry, the city-state is harnessing robots to deal with a limited domestic talent pool that is aging and increasingly unwilling to do manual jobs.

SATS, a unit of ST Engineering Co, the state’s flagship technology company, is currently testing autonomous aerobridges that align to the plane door using lasers and cameras. It is testing a remote-controlled vehicle that can collect luggage from a plane and move it to the baggage handling area in as little as 10 minutes. Another SATS trial uses an autonomous electric vehicle to ferry documents for air cargo. The company is using light detection and ranging to map routes to deliver trolleys with up to 200 kilograms of food each to lounges.

“More than 1 billion people in Asia will fly for the first time between now and 2035,” says SATS CEO Alex Hungate, and automation will “help the company manage higher volumes with no additional manpower.” SATS said staff productivity in terms of value added per employment cost has risen 11 percent in the past four years. Last fiscal year, its staff costs fell for the first time since 2008.


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