What recession? Hong Kong start-up sees boon making robots that take body temperatures amid coronavirus pandemic

Eric Ng

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many businesses to their knees. But one Hong Kong start-up has never been so busy.

Roborn Technology, a two-year old Hong Kong robotics technology firm, has thrown all of its engineers behind a project to design and produce a robot that measures body temperatures.

It started on January 25 – Lunar New Year’s day.

That was five days after President Xi Jinping ordered all levels of government to step up measures to enable early discovery, reporting, quarantining and treating of the infected, and two days after Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak – was locked down.

“We started to design the mobile robot on January 25, and it took us 15 days to complete the prototype’s infrastructure, artificial intelligence and back-office software,” co-founder Mark Mak Hin-yu told the South China Morning Post.

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The robot’s base is a so-called “automated guided vehicle” that gives it mobility, above which two cameras – one for filming and one for thermal imaging – are mounted on retractable support poles.

Once someone’s forehead area temperature exceeds a threshold, data will be sent to an operational centre of the robot’s owner for a fast response or follow-up.

“Some products in the market would trigger an alarm even when someone walks past carrying a cup of coffee, but our artificial intelligence software allows our robot to focus on a person’s head for temperature checks,” Mak said.

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Equipped with 5G internet data transmission capacity, the robot can produce live-streaming video at venue entrances for security staff of medical centres, government services providers, shopping malls and office buildings. It can replace manual temperature checking by workers using slow and intrusive hand-held devices.

Pilot deployment of the robots has been conducted at the head office of Hong Kong’s Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, a facility of the Correctional Services, Ko Shan Theatre run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Admiralty licensing office of the Transportation Department.

Privacy issues are handled by the robots’ customers, Mak said, and they have different data requirements and practises.

“Some just want live-streaming for alerts with no video recording, while others want all data – including the number of passers-by – recorded and kept for follow-ups,” Mak said. “We provide flexibility for them to pick and choose, as we can do the whole spectrum.”

Based on confirmed orders and discussions with potential customers, he expects orders for 50 to 100 units in Hong Kong and Macau – mostly high-specification units priced above HK$400,000 each, he added.

The main challenge in fulfilling the demand is securing enough top quality thermal imaging cameras that cost over HK$100,000 each, for which Roborn has to pay suppliers in Germany and the United States upfront to guarantee supply, Mak said.

Roborn, whose 16 experts and engineers have been developing robots to do such things as deliver hospital drugs, help the elderly and manage properties, has put aside existing projects to focus on the body temperature measurement robot.

“We have to prioritise this project, because such robots would facilitate the reopening of schools and workplaces, which is very important for our society,” Mak said.

Asked if Roborn – set up in 2017 – would raise more funds for business expansion, he said: “We have been funding the business with our own money so far and getting new investors is not a focus. But we never close our door to that.”

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