Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Why would a university want a robot dog?

Over 50 higher education providers in Russia train Robotics and Mechatronics specialists. The labor market shows high demand for robotics engineers. Leading universities spend substantial amounts on creating or purchasing all kinds of robotic devices such as robotic telescopes, manipulator arms or robotic graders. The Robotics and Mechatronics Department at Synergy University has recently bought a robot dog from the Chinese company Unitree Robotics. The department head, Andrei Volostnov, explained why the school would need a mechanical pet and why it is planning to put together its own fleet of robots.

Three robotics companies are currently developing robot dogs — the US companies Boston Dynamics and Ghost Robotics, as well as China’s Unitree Robotics. Other tech giants showing interest in this market segment include China’s Xiaomi, which recently presented the CyberDog robot, and the Japanese Sony corporation, which decided to relaunch its range of Aibo mechanical dogs decades later. Russia’s Innopolis University announced plans last May to design a four-legged robot for the oil company Tatneft.

However, mechanical dogs are not yet quite widespread in Russia. Sales of American robots are hampered by the strained trade and economic relations between the Russian Federation and the United States. Sberbank remains the only Russian company that has bought Spot the robodog from Boston Dynamics. Chinese projects are doing slightly better, which is predictable given the absence of trade barriers, as well as their products’ relative cheapness. For comparison, the last but one Unitree Robotics robot dog model (A1) costs about $20K, their latest model, Go1 education, about $10K, while Spot is priced at almost $75K.

Unitree Robotics was the first company in the world to start retail sales of robots. Twenty A1 robots have been sold to Russia to date. Cyberdogs can develop a speed of 11 kmph, follow their masters and get around obstacles, as well as carry up to 5 kg of weight, perform various stunts, including somersault. Robots can be controlled using a remote or programmed to move around autonomously. The manufacturer claims that the primary goal of Unitree A1 is to explore the terrain: the robot can reach hard-to-access places and can be used for 3D mapping. The model is also advertised as a companion robot that can join its master on runs or guide people with visual impairments.

What’s in it for a university?

The Department of Robotics and Mechatronics at Synergy University, which is accepting its first intake of students this year, purchased a Unitree A1 for study purposes. The robot dog will help students learn about mechanics, mechatronics, electronics, computer vision, design, artificial intelligence, machine learning and many other aspects of the industry. The A1 model has open-source software that can be tweaked to program the dog and “teach” it various commands and stunts. It is a useful but rather labor-consuming activity. For example, a beginner may spend two days teaching an A1 to climb stairs.

The university could potentially find other uses for the quadruped robot. The cyberdog can be a campus guard, record illegal activity and social distancing violations during the pandemic or examine suspicious objects. It can also prove to be useful as a delivery robot or a guide for visiting prospective students and their parents.

Whatever the function the mere existence of a cyberdog sparks people’s interest in modern technology and subtly achieves the robotics department’s ultimate goal, which is to make engineering popular again in Russia.

Unitree А1 is by no means the only robotic device owned by Synergy. The robotics department’s laboratories also experiment with a robotic arm (or an end-effector) and about 20 3D printers. The department plans to build up a whole fleet of robots so that students can fully benefit from a hands-on approach to studies. Perhaps one day, the admissions office at Synergy will “hire” a cyborg to take student applications and there will be robots taking body temperature and facial recognition devices all over campus.

Students will be responsible for the maintenance, programming and perhaps even development of such robots. Young professionals may also be given a chance to get a work placement with the university’s partners that design and operate robots. This vast practical experience will give graduates a strong competitive advantage in the eyes of their future employers.

Popular industry 

The demand for robotics and mechatronics specialists is growing every year. There is still a serious shortage of professionals on the job market. In Russia, there must be at least 300 companies that are desperately seeking developers of industrial and service robots. Some companies are willing to adopt innovative robotic equipment and mechatronic systems; however, the shortage of talent slows down this transition. Given the rapid growth of technology, personnel shortage will keep increasing, at least in the next decade.

According to KUKA Robotics, in Russia, the number of robots per 10,000 workers is 20 times less than the world’s average. Only 5% of Russia’s industrial assembly lines are robotized (in Europe, it is 45%). Nevertheless, the Russian robotics market has a good growth potential. According to a survey made by TAdviser, over 50% of large industrial enterprises in Russia are going to purchase and use robots in the next two years.

Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2030, the global robotics market will increase tenfold and reach $260 bln. By that moment, according to various estimates, from 6 to 20 millions Russians could lose their jobs due to automation. At the same time, new professions related to modern technology will appear. The report Future of Jobs by the World Economic Forum says that robots will create 133 million new jobs despite displacing 75 million. All these numbers once again confirm the need to develop educational programs to train robotics engineers, and integrate robots in the educational process for practical tasks.

By Andrei Volostnov, Head of the Robotics and Mechatronics Department, Synergy University

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