AsianScientist (May 12, 2021) – Asia boasts a long history of engineering research and innovation. Among many other things, ancient China gave the world the blast furnace and compass while the Indus Valley civilization pioneered urban hydraulic engineering and sanitation technologies over 4,000 years ago.
Asia’s contemporary engineering innovators are still engaged in a relentless effort to improve the quality of life in the region’s urban and rural areas. Much of their groundbreaking R&D revolves around technologies that are part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This means that unlike many of their relatively siloed predecessors, today’s engineering innovators work at the intersections of the physical, digital and biological spheres.
For instance, Asia has quickly become a world leader in robotics and drones, driven by enthusiastic consumer adoption amid favorable government policies. IDC, a research house, expects spending in Asia-Pacific, minus Japan, on robotics, drones and associated services to hit US$129.4 billion by 2022, triple the amount in 2018.
Household consumer robots, including vacuums and lawn mowers, are increasingly common around Asia, while in public spaces robots can be found patrolling airports, shuttling medicines and medical equipment around hospitals and care homes, and helping return trays at food centers. Meanwhile, the non-profit Vattikuti Foundation is eager to install 200 surgical robots and complete over 20,000 robotic-assisted surgeries in India by 2020.
Social robots are on the cusp of emulating person-to-person interactions everywhere from homes to reception counters. In 2015, the first Korean humanoid robot HUBO won the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The 180-cm-tall, 80-kg HUBO has a bipedal and wheeled mode, a semi-automatic operating control system and a body that can swivel 180 degrees. It can open doors climb stairs and even gesticulate with its five fingers.
HUBO is the brainchild of Oh Jun-Ho, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. Oh is also experimenting with ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots) that, compared to humanoids, are cheaper, easier to use and built to work alongside humans. He envisions robots performing assistive roles such as helping the elderly or people with disabilities, demand for which will rise as Asia ages.
It is a similar story with drones, whose ambitious and widespread deployment across Asia is testament to the region’s diversity. In China, drones help with daytime pollution monitoring and nighttime law enforcement (using thermal imaging cameras). Indian cops in the city of Lucknow, meanwhile, own four pepper-spraying drones; elsewhere in the country, drones have helped them track a murderous tiger.
Japanese researchers have used a balloon-assisted unmanned aerial vehicle to collect atmospheric particles 22 km above Antarctica. In Malaysia, drones are used in everything from surveying crops in palm oil plantations to tracking malaria deep in the tropical rainforests.
Flying far ahead of the pack is DJI, a Chinese brand that has defied the odds to become a household name across the world, today accounting for some three-quarters of the civilian drone market. Frank Wang started DJI in 2006 out of his Hong Kong University of Science & Technology dorm room.
In 2015, it launched its first agricultural drone, designed for the precision spraying of liquid pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides onto crops. DJI today accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s drone market and is valued at over US$20 billion.
Asia is also leading the global shift from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric and fuel-cell ones, largely in a bid to mitigate air pollution in major cities. Shenzhen, for instance, has converted its entire 16,000-strong bus fleet to electric power. Bangkok is testing electric-powered ferries across its canals.
South Korea, meanwhile, is leading the charge for hydrogen fuel cell cars, with plans to have 850,000 on the road by 2030. Its ambitions have been aided by the pioneering work of Lim Tae-won, director of the Future Innovation Technology Center at Hyundai Motor Company.
Lim developed a hydrogen fuel cell small enough to be mounted on a vehicle at a competitive price. His current work is focused towards developing new, more sustainable materials for the mobility industry at large.
Another area of great interest in the region is the development and deployment of technologies such as AI, big data, blockchain and the Internet of Things, particularly in the realm of ‘smart cities.’
Concerns about Asia’s rapid engineering progress in the Fourth Industrial Revolution include the ethical use of AI and increased surveillance amid rapidly evolving government-citizen interactions. Jobs displacement through automation is also a persistent worry.
However, in a study analyzing 12 Asian developing countries from 2005 to 2015, the Asian Development Bank found that new technologies, such as modern machine tools and computer systems in factories and offices, had created 134 million new jobs by stimulating productivity and growth, easily offsetting the 101 million jobs lost to technology during that period.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustrations: Oi Keat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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