In 1976 an animated film called Robot Taekwon V captured Korean kids’ imaginations with its tale of a superhero robot fending off giant machines bent on world domination. The film’s appeal endures—as does the cultural fascination with automated machines. South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s industrial planners have global ambitions of their own: to blow by Europe, Japan, and the U.S. in the race to hold sway over advanced robotics.
South Korea is embracing robotics with the same intensity that made it a force in high-speed broadband, widescreen televisions, and smartphones. Robot Land, a state-subsidized 758 billion won ($735 million) theme park featuring futuristic rides as well as research and development labs, is set to open in 2016. The government is also investing 1.1 trillion won to support the nation’s robotics industry.
That industry has doubled in size since 2009, with revenue reaching 2.1 trillion won in 2012, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. The government seeks to boost that to 7 trillion won by 2018 with 600 domestic robot companies employing 34,000 workers. South Korea’s expertise in screen technology, semiconductors, sensors, and auto manufacturing gives it an edge, says Lee Jeong Yeob, a senior research engineer at Hyundai Rotem, a defense company that’s part of Hyundai Motor Group (005380:KS). “We have the fundamental technologies, which we should use to commercialize robots.”
Some public schools in Gyeonggi province are equipped with an Engkey, an egg-shaped machine with a tablet for a head that streams video lessons from off-site English-language instructors. The Hanwha Eagles professional baseball team has installed bots at its stadium that hold up signs displaying messages from fans who want to root for their team remotely. A Samsung Group (005930:KS) subsidiary has developed a machine gun-toting and grenade-launching robot sentry called the SGR-A1 that detects intruders using cameras, and heat and motion sensors. The government has tested it at the demilitarized zone along the border with North Korea.
Despite such breakthroughs, catching up to competitors won’t be easy. South Korea ranks No. 4 in deployment of industrial robots worldwide. After Japan—the leader—watched its high-tech industries get slammed by Samsung, Apple (AAPL), and Google (GOOG), the country is now investing heavily to preserve its edge. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assembled a task force to examine ways to triple the size of Japan’s robot industry to 2.4 trillion yen ($22.6 billion).
South Korea’s domestic robot market is heavily skewed to manufacturing bots that cater to the shipping and auto industries. The country also is home to some standouts in health-care robotics. Curexo (060280:KS), a medical equipment maker, sells Robodoc, which performs orthopedic surgeries. Scientists at Chonnam National University based in Gwangju published a paper in Nature last year detailing their research into microscopic nanobots that can be injected into a patient’s bloodstream to detect cancer cells and destroy them.
Colin Angle, chief executive officer and co-founder of Bedford (Mass.)-based iRobot, a maker of automated floor cleaners and defense robots, says he believes South Korea ranks just behind the U.S. in robotic innovation. Yet he adds that will mean little if companies can’t make commercially viable robots that global consumers want to buy. “Robots take huge amounts of capital,” he says.
Another sign South Korean robotics is gaining more respect: Late last year, Andy Rubin, who runs Google’s robot group and is a co-founder of Android, visited Kaist, a public research university in central South Korea, to check out Hubo, a humanoid robot that can play rock, paper, scissors. Oh Jun Ho, the robot’s developer and a professor in the mechanical engineering department, says Rubin stayed for two days “and took two Hubos with him when he left.”