This article was written and reported by Asyraf Kamil and Wong Zioedy
Formerly a naval officer with the Republic of Singapore Navy, Woon Junyang is navigating a vastly different field today. After leaving the Singapore Armed Forces in 2013, the 33-year-old is now the chief executive officer of Infinium Robotics, a startup that is ramping up its development of indoor drones for purposes such as waitering and warehouse stocktaking.
His office, tucked away in a cluster of industrial buildings at Pandan Loop, is a glimpse into the future of robotics and automation. A 3-D printer sits near the entrance, drones of various sizes are parked on every available surface, and a ring of motion capture cameras surround a drone testing ground the size of a small classroom.
“Back in 2013, the use of drones was still in the infancy (stage), but it was starting to grow. I thought, can drone technology be used in the civilian sector? And then I realized there are actually a lot of applications,” Woon said.
Woon’s three-year-old startup, which has a team of 15 employees, is in a global race to engineer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for indoor business operations.
Aside from its autonomous drone waiters that made the news last year, Infinium Robotics is also aiming to be the first in Southeast Asia to develop and launch autonomous drones for inventory stocktaking in warehouses.
Called Infinium Scan, these drones can fly along the aisles of the warehouse and scan goods using a barcoding technology. At the end of the scanning cycle, the drones will then send signals back to the warehouse management system. According to Woon, there is no need for employees to man the indoor drones, freeing them up for other tasks.
Infinium Scan, said Woon, is expected to reduce the stock-taking processes at warehouses from 30 days to two days. Woon’s company is also working with at least 10 large global multinational corporations (MNCs) with offices in Singapore and he expects Infinium Scan to be fully utilised by these companies by next year.
“You see robotics coming in to replace very specific functions of human labour. Robots cannot replace humans entirely. That means you cannot create a robot to be like a human and do everything,” Woon said. “Robots have to be designed to do one task, and to do it well and do it better (than humans).”
Infinium Robotics, which has secured US$750,000 from the SPRING Singapore initiative called the Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme, is raising a Series A round and targetting US$5 million. With the startup expecting brisk business, Woon plans to double its company’s manpower to 30 employees over the next two years.
Indoor drones rising
Beyond the region, Infinium Robotics has serious competitors.
Earlier this year, US retail company Walmart announced that it was testing drones to check warehouse inventories, and that launch dates are expected to be any time from December to March next year. Chicago-based data analytics company IFM Technologies also revealed that it was planning its first commercial roll out of inventory-tracking drones next year.
Pavel Marceux, a digital specialist at Euromonitor International, predicts that “it is most certain that within two or three years – perhaps five – drones will become far more mainstream.”
Despite the promise of drones, however, businesses may be deterred from taking risks and investing in such new technology due to unclear legal restrictions for drones.
“Drones are small, they’re very hard to spot and they’re very easy to operate. These create very difficult regulation policies and it becomes very difficult to police them. Privacy and data protection is also a major issue,” said Marceux.
Woon knows that indoor drones face a different set of challenges, too, as GPS signals cannot be read accurately indoors and limited space presents risks of collision.
“If you are (flying drones) outdoors you can measure your errors in metres and it still works because there is so much space,” said Woon. “When indoors, you might be able to get signals through opening of windows or doors but your position is not accurate.”
To counter this, Infinium Robotics has developed a specialised proprietary technology for its autonomous drones. Its indoor positioning technology can measure accuracy to the centimetre, while its camera system can measure accuracy to the millimetre.
These measurements allow Infinium Robotics to test the flight of its drones with higher precision.
Growth of e-commerce
The global slowdown of the shipping industry might dampen Woon’s quest for expansion, but he is confident that the growth of e-commerce can help push the demand for new technology in warehousing operations.
The way Woon sees it, every risk presents an opportunity. “Actually (slow economic growth) would hasten the process of our technology being adopted by companies. Why? Because as logistics companies find that their profit margins are being squeezed, they will find ways to increase profit margins,” he said. “And that’s when (they) would be willing to adopt new technology to improve profit margins.”
A report published last year by US-based Zebra Technologies, a listed company that sells tracking technologies, projected a shift in the role of warehouses and distribution centers from merely cost centres into assets for competitive differentiation.
With e-commerce giants like Rakuten investing in drones to deliver goods to golfers at golf courses and Amazon developing technology for drone-based deliveries over long distances, there is an upward trend for on-demand services, where warehouses can expect “new goods by the hour, or even by the minute,” said Woon.
Despite its small size, Singapore makes for an ideal testbed for Infinium Robotics’ new technology because it is a shipment hub, where many global logistics MNCs, such as Maersk, DHL and U-Freight, have set their bases.
In 2016, the World Bank ranked Singapore as Asia’s leading logistics hub, citing its global reach and infrastructure.
But Woon noted that many companies here are still using dated technologies in their operations.
“If you look at automation technologies that companies are using at the moment, it’s actually very primitive, like we’re still stuck (from) 20 years ago. But it’s no fault of the companies because they have to stick to something that works,” he said.
New technology, new challenges
It has not always been smooth sailing for Infinium Robotics. Last year, the startup partnered local restaurant and bar chain Timbre Group to launch the Southeast Asia’s first autonomous drone waiters.
A year after its expected launch, the project still appears to be facing some teething issues. A Timbre Group representative said that although the “drone project was piloted, (they have) yet to launch the drones project formally.”
Woon is undeterred. “Developing new technologies has its risks, so one of the risks is that you face technical challenges that you need to overcome and that will take time,” he said. Woon said that the project is now slated for its debut the end of this year, as a “showcase of technology and a peek into the future.”
Despite such setbacks, Woon believes his military background has trained him well to help him realise his vision of taking his drone technology beyond Singapore.
“Enemies will try to counter your will, make sure that your forces are demoralized, so that they will win. For us, as commanders and officers, we have to make sure the morale is high, and we work towards one single goal. That’s what we do in the military that can be applied to (my business).”
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