These days, people encounter robots in their daily lives, as robots are becoming increasingly available commercially. Drones are flying in the sky, while AI-powered assistant robots are helping people at airports, department stores, banks and hospitals. But in the water, the situation is different. Development of underwater service robots is rather slow, due to various difficulties including waterproofing and buoyancy. Today, we’ll introduce a Korean robot venture company called Airo, which has designed the world’s first marine intelligence robot for commercial use. Let’s hear from company CEO, Oh Yong-joo.

Airo was set up in 2014 as a robotics startup dedicated to developing underwater service robots. It is the only company that has commercialized fish robots. Institutes in many countries carry out research on fish robots, but Airo is certainly a leader in this field. In the development of underwater robots, the most challenging part is to produce a biomimetic robot that imitates an aquatic living creature, that is, real fish. If we secure the relevant technology, any underwater robot can be made. That’s why we chose to develop fish robots in the beginning, although the process was difficult.

Mr. Oh majored in metal material engineering at Korea University. After studying at graduate school, he worked as a researcher at Samsung Electro-Mechanics. While working on product development and manufacturing technology, he developed an interest in the robot industry. In 2014, he established Airo and started developing marine robots. “Robo Tuna” is the first type of fish robot developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994 for military purposes. Having evolved for 1.6 million years, fish have a body structure that is optimized for maximum efficiency in the water. For scientists, it is a charming task to develop a robot equipped with that function. But it is difficult for researchers to make a robot that can swim naturally like live fish, because they need to understand how energy changes when a fish moves and what its body structure is like. The company put a great deal of effort into solving these problems.

We analyzed 150 different types of swimming patterns to create the final 50. The standardized swimming patterns were embedded in robots to make them swim in the water like fish. We conducted this test over and over again. Another important technology is waterproofing. Once the robot enters the water, it should move 10 hours a day and withstand enormous water pressure. To produce a waterproof, plastic robot with strong durability, we designed molds repeatedly. Also, we had to solve the problem of underwater communication. It is hard to transmit signals in the water. Since it is necessary to locate and control robots in the water, we invested a lot of time and technology in underwater communication.

Airo did extensive research and constantly designed, simulated and produced robots to overcome various problems, such as water leaks and the corrosion of internal parts. The company was finally able to succeed in developing the marine intelligence robot. The robot’s head contains a central processing unit, which makes the robot move by sending a signal to the motors that connect the three bodies comprising the robot. Equipped with swimming patterns similar to real fish, distance measurement sensors and the obstacle detection algorithm, the fish robots can move in all directions, avoiding obstacles in the water. They are now swimming in various parts of the world.

We released the marine intelligence robot in 2016. It is available in Seoul’s Lotte World Mall. I think the robots can be found in aquariums in other parts of the country, such as Incheon, Bucheon, Busan and Daegu. We’re exporting our robotic fish to many countries, including Japan, China, Singapore, the U.S. and France. Assistant robots in everyday life are very common in Japan, where our robot models have been well-received. At Japan’s Henn na Hotel, for example, a video using our robots has already been viewed over a million times. It is the world’s first hotel staffed almost entirely by robots. To launch similar services, some local provinces in China are asking for our products, while France is using our robots to conduct research on human psychology.

Some 30 aquatic robots of Airo have been placed here in Korea, and the company is exporting its robot products overseas as well. It has already obtained more than 17 kinds of patents in Korea and abroad and received certification from the State Radio Regulatory Commission in China and the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. The company can produce various kinds of robotic fish, which vary in size, including sea bream, carp and tropical fish, and it is even working on the robotic reproduction of extinct species. In addition to providing underwater robots, the company is also creating a new entertainment market.

Some aquariums are looking for a whole new service. Marine creatures dominated the earth before humans lived through the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. We could restore the ancient sea creatures, which only remain in fossils, in the form of robots. The robotic reproduction of fish that have gone extinct will provide people with something amusing to see and generate great educational effects to possibly create a new education market. Airo is the world’s first company to supply robotic fish, and leading aquarium firms in the world have been making inquiries about our products. A Japanese company asked us to restore fish from the Paleozoic era and we have already delivered the reproduced fish robot.

Aquariums around the world are seeking change and innovation. Staying away from the traditional method of simply displaying similar kinds of fish, they want to show the past by restoring extinct fish species in the form of robots and also plan on hosting underwater robot performances. While exploring this new entertainment market, Airo is expanding its business scope into water management.

We’re preparing for a new service, namely, an underwater monitoring system, to assist fish farms. Fish farms need to check the conditions of fish and the pollution level in the water. It is hard to find divers who go directly into the water to perform the function, and it costs a lot. But robots could replace divers. Usually, fish tend to run away when a machine enters the water. Our tests show that fish don’t avoid our robot. Rather, they swim with the robotic fish. So, the robot can monitor the health conditions of fish up close. It can also check the water quality in every corner of fish farms and notify the manager of the result. By testing the safety and the water situation in advance, the robots can prevent a large number of fish from perishing suddenly.

The aquatic robot market is a vast ocean that offers boundless opportunities. Airo saw the potential of this market and pioneered a new way that had never been explored. Without a doubt, the future of this company is very promising.