Robot maker sees demand surge amid virus outbreak

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While other industries struggle, Liu Zhiyong says China’s COVID-19 outbreak is boosting demand for his knee-high, bright yellow grocery delivery robots.

Liu, CEO of ZhenRobotics Corp., is among millions of entrepreneurs who are gradually getting back to work after China declared victory over the coronavirus that shut down the world’s second-largest economy.

ZhenRobotics’ flagship model is the six-wheeled, 68-centimetre-tall (27-inch-tall) RoboPony. 

The self-driving cart is sold to retailers, hospitals, malls and apartment complexes. 

Controlled through a smartphone app, the RoboPony can carry 90 pounds and travel at up to six mph.

Demand for e-commerce soared after the government cut most access to cities with a total of 60 million people in late January, due the new coronavirus outbreak. 

Hundreds of millions more in other areas were to told stay home whenever possible.

The company’s cleaning and patrolling robots “have a strong vision, including the ability to process the data of thermal imaging,” says Liu.

“By processing various types of data to realize the awareness, identification and monitoring of the environment.”

One of Liu’s robots now patrols Shanghai’s Taikoo Hui shopping mall. 

It’s able to spot shoppers with bare faces and remind them to put on a mask. It also dispenses hand sanitizer and broadcasts anti-virus information.

“It’s convenient,” says eight-year-old Shanghai resident Mao Zhuojun.

“Whenever a person wants to wash their hands, “puff”, a robot gives some hand sanitizer.”

In contrast to airlines, hotels and other industries that face a long and uncertain struggle to recover, Liu says his orders have tripled since the virus outbreak began.

“The epidemic made people aware of the fragility of human beings and robots can make up for this vulnerability and provide services that people can trust,” says Liu. 

“Trust in robots has been enhanced dramatically.”

Beijing has spent heavily on setting up robotics departments at universities and research institutes. 

Private sector developers can apply for research grants and other support.

Liu says because of quarantine orders and travel curbs, their production was behind schedule, but has been getting to normal in the past month. 

“Some of the difficulties are caused by logistics and some are caused by the restricted flow of people,” says Liu.

Beijing’s city government gave ZhenRobotics a marketing boost by including it on an official list of “anti-epidemic new technology.”

Liu plans to step up research into disinfection by ultraviolet light and other possible hygiene-related features.

The company has placed many orders to its suppliers and plans to produce 90 robots in the next six weeks, says Liu.

“Our next step is to start with what was called breakeven in the past, and gradually strive for greater profits.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. 

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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