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Singapore robot guards aim to help ease worker shortage

Singapore's financial district
ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP/ Getty Images
Singapore's financial district

In Singapore, where robots are being deployed from healthcare to restaurants in a government-backed push to ease a workforce crunch, a new niche has been found for intelligent machines — nightwatchman.

O-R3, a four-wheeled security robot unveiled by a Singapore technology company on Friday, is designed to patrol large outdoor areas without human guidance, making sure all people on the site are authorised to be there.

It navigates itself with an array of sensors including laser scanners and GPS.The automated guard, which weighs 80kg and stands 1.5m tall, comes with a drone, which pops out of its side to pursue intruders over fences or across difficult terrain.

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While security robots are already on the market — US company Knightscope's K5 is widely deployed at malls and corporate headquarters in California — the Singapore business OTSAW Digital is promoting its machine as a solution to the tightening labour market in ageing Asian societies.

"Security companies have been talking to us," said Ling Ting Ming, the company's chief executive. "They want to use technology to replace labour, which is becoming more and more challenging [to find] in Japan, HongKong and Singapore."

The high attrition rate for security guards — the industry in Singapore had a 2.8 per cent resignation rate last year, compared with 1.8 per cent for the labour market as a whole — means robots may have an additional advantage over humans, Mr Ling added.

"It's not just labour shortage but the accuracy of technology compared with humans," he said. "A new security guard will not remember the faces of all employees on the compound."

That task may not be entirely straightforward for a robot. The company acknowledges the risk of mistaken identity as the machine uses facial recognition technology to tell the difference between authorised personnel and intruders.

"For a start we will look at quite basic stuff," Mr Ling said. "If a bag is unattended for five minutes it triggers an alarm and needs further investigation. We can classify who is an employee, who is an intruder . . . there will be false positives [but] as the machine learns, it gets sharper."

The machine requires at least two hours' charging time between each four- to five-hour patrol, and comes with a hefty price tag — it will be leased to clients at US$10,000 a month.

Singapore already makes extensive use of robots in manufacturing with about 400 robots for every 10,000 factory employees, the world's highest density after South Korea, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group.

The city-state's government is backing a drive to expand the use of robots in services — from collecting dirty crockery in restaurants to assisting kindergarten teachers with storytelling.

In last year's budget, Singapore announced plans to spend more than S$450m (US$323m) over three years on the deployment of robots.

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