Just last year, the four-legged robot dog was the biggest hotspot in the field of robot venture capital, but the situation has changed a year later. At this year’s World Robot Conference, more than a dozen humanoid robot companies became the most eye-catching protagonists, and many of them have new projects that have just landed for a few months. Under the enthusiasm of AI large models, the humanoid robot track has become one of the beneficiaries, although its commercialization is still far away.
On August 16, the 2023 World Robot Conference was officially launched. In the entire exhibition, the most eye-catching is undoubtedly the humanoid robot.
“This is the exhibition with the largest number of humanoid robots, and almost all manufacturers of humanoid robots have come to participate in the exhibition.” Allen, a senior practitioner, observed.
“This year’s exhibition started to apply for participation in July, and many humanoid projects have just landed in the first half of this year, which means that the project may be rushed to meet everyone within a few months of its establishment.”
“Shijie” also noticed that almost every humanoid robot booth was full of spectators. In contrast, the booths of medical robots and commercial cleaning robots seemed relatively deserted.
In 2022, the entry of Tesla and Xiaomi aroused the market’s attention and enthusiasm for humanoid robots. Afterwards, Huawei’s talented teenager Zhihui Jun, Peking University assistant professor Wang He, and intelligent cleaning robot company Zhui Mi entered the market. Push the market’s venture capital enthusiasm to a climax.
More than 10 humanoid robots “fight”
According to official sources, this conference exhibited nearly 600 advanced technologies and products from about 160 robot companies and scientific research institutions around the world, among which humanoid robot companies accounted for more than 10, and these companies came from universities and research institutes. There are also those from major Internet companies, and more from start-up companies.
Walking into the exhibition hall, the first thing that catches your eyes is the bionic humanoid robots exhibited by EX Robotics Group, including “Poem Fairy Li Bai” and “elderly people” wearing shirts and trousers.
In addition to EX Group, Shenzhen Institute of Intelligent Robotics also exhibited the bionic portrait robot “Sai Daqian”.
Compared with being close to the real human image, the humanoid robot products of more companies are “reinforced iron skeleton models” with a higher sense of technology.
For example, Xiaomi’s humanoid robot “CyberOne (Iron Big)” also appeared at the exhibition site, sharing the booth with the second-generation robot dog “CyberDog 2 (Iron Egg)” just released by Xiaomi.
The booths of UBTECH and DADA, an intelligent humanoid robot company, are adjacent to each other, and their respective product display areas are only separated by an aisle. The product competition between the two companies is quite a bit of gunpowder.
UBTECH’s “Walker X” rode a balance car to show off its balance control ability; the panda-headed robot “Youyo” demonstrated its multi-modal interaction capabilities and can make corresponding actions according to user instructions.
Data’s humanoid robots give people the feeling of winning by numbers. According to the statistics of “City Boundary”, Data has arranged more than 10 humanoid robots on the scene, some of them are shooting basketballs, some are dancing in line, and some are doing static displays… …
In addition to the above-mentioned companies, more exhibitors are actually new faces who entered the humanoid robot market in the first half of this year.
For example, smart cleaning robot company Zhuimi Technology launched a humanoid robot product in March this year. This humanoid robot “picks up customers” at the exhibition site and provides services such as making latte coffee for booth visitors.
Both Pasini Perception Technology and Yushu Technology chose to release humanoid robots directly at the exhibition. At the same time, Zhiyuan Robotics (founded by Zhihui Jun, who was selected for the “Huawei Genius Youth” project) did not participate in the conference, but also released its first product online.
Another human-shaped exhibitor, Beijing Xingdong Era, was even registered and established on August 4, 2023, and there is no “full moon” yet…
It is worth mentioning that despite the large number of projects, the shape of many humanoid robots is still relatively “rough”. For example, Yushu’s humanoid robot has the words “half-year results preview” written on it, indicating that the product still has room for optimization.
As for companies rushing into the humanoid robot market, Allen, a senior practitioner, analyzed: “I think there are two reasons. On the one hand, although the whole humanoid robot is not commercially available for a short time, the technology can be migrated. If joints, algorithms, etc. A breakthrough in a certain aspect can apply this part of technology dimension reduction to other fields, which can also achieve a closed business loop; on the other hand, it does not rule out that many companies have the need to maintain market value or image. Deepen the color of technology on the body.”
The big model is the icing on the cake
Facing the dazzling humanoid robot products in the whole exhibition, how should we judge the difference in product strength between different products?
Mars, who has participated in many robot competitions at home and abroad, told “Shijie”: “It is actually not difficult to judge this point. It can be summed up in one word ‘moving’. Whoever walks has a larger, more stable and more coordinated stride. , It is less likely to fall over, which proves that the product has a higher degree of completion.”
However, in the entire exhibition, there were not many manufacturers who could make robots “walk”. Even if there were robots that could walk, the manufacturers strictly limited the time for their demonstrations.
For example, although Xiaomi’s Tie Da appeared at the exhibition site, it was only statically displayed on the booth, and it was unable to display its gait and other sports abilities. The staff at the Xiaomi booth explained: “This time we mainly display the robot dog Tie Dan, which can move, and Tie Da is mainly for static display.” In addition, some manufacturers choose to limit the continuous display time to less than 1 hour.
The motion capability of a humanoid robot represents a system integration project involving the integration of various software and hardware technologies such as automatic driving, visual navigation, sensors, servo systems, reducers, and control systems.
Due to the extremely high complexity and the need for huge R&D investment support, in the past few decades, the research and development of humanoid robots has become one of the difficulties in the global scientific and technological field. For this reason, products such as the humanoid robot “Asimo” of the Honda Technical Research Institute, the pioneer of humanoid robot research and development, and the humanoid robot “Pepper” jointly developed by SoftBank Group have all been retired.
However, in 2023, the development of AI large-scale model technology represented by ChatGPT will usher in a “spring breeze” for the humanoid robot industry.
Xi Weiwei, an investor in the field of robotics, told the market: “Large model + can be said to be the direction of the entire industry, and among all kinds of robots, the humanoid product form has a strong demand for AI algorithms, so this year it must be a humanoid model. Big year for robotics investing.”
At present, many companies have begun to launch exclusive large-scale models for the field of robotics. For example, DeepMind under Google launched the RT-2 model to improve the natural language understanding ability of robots; Model RobotGPT, etc.
However, we need to be cautious about the blessing effect of large models on robots.
According to the research report of Minsheng Securities, humanoid robots can be disassembled into core components such as control systems, bodies, and sensing systems.
In terms of speech, vision, decision-making, control, etc., the combination of large models and humanoid robots will help the latter form a closed loop of perception, decision-making, and control, making the robot have common sense. However, the servo drives (similar to the joints of the human body), sensors, ball screws (transmission components) and other hardware required by humanoid robots still need to be continuously tackled by the entire industry chain.
“The landing scenarios written in many humanoid robot project books include industrial scenarios, dangerous operation scenarios, etc., but the maturity of the product at this stage is far from supporting this part of the application. This is not a problem that can be solved by a large model. It requires the coordinated development of the entire supply chain.” Practitioner Allen said.
Is it worth betting on the future?
Although there are a variety of humanoid robots at the exhibition site, such products are still far away from commercialization, and the existing commercialization scenarios are relatively limited.
As the largest humanoid robot company in China, UBTECH started earlier to explore the commercialization of humanoid robots. In 2022, its first batch of Walker X robots have been exported to the “New Future City”, a tourism city project built in Saudi Arabia. In addition, Ubtech has also developed products such as consumer-grade miniature humanoid robots for the education market.
However, according to the prospectus disclosed by UBTECH at the beginning of the year, the company has not yet made a profit, and the main source of revenue is educational intelligent robots, not large humanoid robots.
An engineer at the exhibition site told “City Boundary” that Mimi already has the mass production capacity of general-purpose humanoid robots, and is exploring the application of general-purpose humanoid robots. Quadruped robots have begun to be applied in some industrial scenarios, which can be used in security, inspection, rescue, survey, surveying and mapping, and serve fire protection, electric power, mining and other industries. The technology of humanoid and quadruped robots is common to other products of the company, so it can reduce the cost of technology research and development and application to a certain extent.
Another staff member of a humanoid robot company who did not want to be named said that the main landing scenarios of its products are limited to university institutions, exhibition halls and other scenarios for scientific research, exhibitions and other purposes.
The uncertainty of business prospects has also divided the attitude of the venture capital market towards humanoid robots. Some practitioners and investors who pay attention to demand orientation maintain a wait-and-see attitude towards humanoid robots.
Mars said to “Urban Boundary”: “I think the logic of entrepreneurship should be to have needs first, and then define and make a product that can fill the gap. Human figures seem to be able to do many things, but in fact they can’t do anything. Well, from this point of view, I don’t think it’s a good project.” However, he also said: “Technology can be transferred, and if algorithms or certain components can be put into commercial use first, it may be a good commercialization project. choose.”
Another fund manager, who did not want to be named, believes that humanoid design is not necessary in many cases: “When I see a humanoid, I will ask this question – can the shape be simplified to get a better design? For example, put a double The feet are replaced by rollers, and the arms are replaced by pliers? In most cases, the simplification is valid, so what is the meaning of the human form?”
Compared with these “pragmatic” views, investors who are actively entering the market are focusing on the structural opportunities brought about by the explosion of AI technology.
Xi Weiwei, an investor, believes: “Those who invest in the whole machine project must believe that software determines the upper limit of humanoid robots.” In the past few months, a “big language model +” venture capital fever has swept the office , customer service, cloud computing and other fields, robots are also expected to become the next direction with unlimited potential.
Many institutions are also relatively optimistic about the forecast of the humanoid robot market. According to the Advanced Industry Research Institute, it is estimated that the penetration rate of global humanoid robots in service robots is expected to reach 3.5% in 2026, and the market size will exceed 2 billion US dollars. By 2030, the global market will The scale is expected to exceed 20 billion US dollars.
Facing an unknown blue ocean, many people do not want to be absent, because they believe that one day robotics technology will have a critical point like a big bang, and the market demand will also spurt out at that time.