Travellers passing through Shenzhen International Airport in southern China may have noticed an interesting figure in their midst.
As the humanoid robot whizzes around the terminal, it responds to passenger queries on flight and airport information using any one of the 28 languages programmed in its system. For special queries, the robot can intelligently reach out to background personnel.
It also keeps a watchful eye on all comings and goings. For instance, customs personnel can input the ID information of criminal suspects into the robot's facial recognition system so that they receive notifications when these persons attempt to cross borders. This robot is Qihan-Sanbot, developed by Shenzhen-based Qihan Technology in partnership with the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau.
Qihan-Sanbot operates on an open platform, according to Ryan Wu, the company's vice president. This means that "client organizations and other developers can create their own applications for Qihan-Sanbot for their own needs," he says. "This is the core difference between Qihan-Sanbot and other robots on the market right now."
Qihan has created its own open developer platform, known as Sanbot ROS – Robot Operation System, which Wu likened to the Android OS for mobile phones. Sanbot ROS, together with the basic artificial intelligence (AI) module and open application programming interface (API), allows developers to create different applications for Qihan-Sanbot, which can be connected to the cloud.
From drawing board to reality
Reflecting on the journey to market, the first Qihan-Sanbot prototype was created in 2015, after three years of development.
Since the launch of Qihan's first Android robot in February, more than 30,000 Qihan-Sanbot units have been sold within China, mostly deployed in public areas. Within Shenzhen Airport, for instance, besides playing a role in security and providing the public with information, Qihan-Sanbot is used by customs to handle enquiries and deal with complaints, among other services.
In addition, Qihan-Sanbots have also been spotted in shopping malls and at high-end medical organizations serving as medical concierges.
Wu says: "In healthcare, they can be used to liaise with overseas resources; they provide back-end communication with platforms overseas for registration, appointment booking, ordering medicines and also serve as the interface between Chinese patients and overseas doctors."
Casting a wider net
While most of its previous customers have been domestic, the launch of Qihan-Sanbot has propelled Qihan to venture overseas.
The company aims to reach "four types of customers" namely distributors; industry operators in children's education, retail, healthcare and security; software developers; and providers of cloud services."
To this end, the company stepped up its partnership with B2B trading platform Alibaba.com, becoming a Gold Supplier, which is the highest level of membership. This ensured it could benefit from access to premium services such as Trade Assurance, which offers product quality, order shipment and payment protection to Alibaba.com buyers. This, in turn, boosts the credibility of suppliers as well.
Sofia Luo, Qihan's overseas marketing director, pointed out that the platform has helped the company receive a higher volume of enquiries. "Alibaba.com (also) helps us to reach big buyers," she added.
With its recent participation at GITEX – the largest technology exchange and marketplace for the Middle East and Africa – alongside Alibaba.com, Wu hopes that Qihan-Sanbot will gain an even higher profile in the region, especially in Qihan's key target markets of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel and Morocco.
Qihan also has its eye on the US and Western Europe, and will soon launch the second-generation Qihan-Sanbot with enhanced functionality, in time for CES in Las Vegas early next year.
"Alibaba.com helps with raising our profile overseas and bringing more exposure to our product," Wu says. "Robotics is not like fast-moving consumer goods – we are targeting industry professionals and developers, and Alibaba.com gives us B2B exposure."