Barking In Binary: Meet COVID-19 Robot Creator Dr Zhang Yanliang


Published On Fri, 18 Feb 2022


Dr Zhang Yanliang’s COVID-19 mask detection and social distancing checking robot has been running at Ministry of Communication and Information for 15+ months, and now he is pushing the robot for outdoor (e.g., playground) disinfection at several public parks, to allow our kids to enjoy more outdoor time. Here are five things you might not have known about him. 

Dr Zhang with some of Weston Robot's products in their headquarters at The Chadwick at Singapore Science Park.

Dr Zhang with some of Weston Robot's products in their headquarters at The Chadwick at Singapore Science Park.

Robots can do almost anything these days—just take a look at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Two amphibious, submersible robots were a part of the torch relay, which partially took place underwater; catering robots prepare and serve food round-the-clock; and roving robots are used to scan the air for Covid-19 particles and disinfect rooms.  

But did you know that similar robots exist here in Singapore too? We’ve got service robots deployed in restaurants like Haidilao, a robotic barista nestled within Plaza Singapura, as well as robot dogs or quadruped robots.  

So, what can robots not do then? “(They) can’t provide true human feelings, at least not within the next ten years or so,” says Dr Zhang Yanliang, Managing Director and Chief Scientist of the local Robots as a Service (RaaS) startup, Weston Robot at The Chadwick at Singapore Science Park. Under the RaaS model and subscription service, clients can lease robotic devices and equipment without having to purchase them outright, which can be very expensive.  

Known for their deployment of electrical Unmanned Service Vessels (eUSVs) and 5G-enabled Quadruped Robots, Weston Robot has made many breakthroughs in the robotics industry, with their eUSVs being used for garbage collection, and their remote-controlled Quadruped Robots being used for construction site inspections. That said, not a lot is known about the brains behind it all—Dr Zhang. Here are five things you might not have known about him:

1. A chance encounter sparked his love for robotics 

Growing up, Dr Zhang was never big on robotics, and only had his first foray into the field in his final year of undergraduate studies as a Computer Engineering student in Nanyang Technological University (NTU).  

“My final year project in NTU was about the balancing of a rotary pendulum, which is an example of a classical control problem. It involved multi-disciplinary knowledge, and I had to be very hands on to get the project done. It was so exciting when I saw the pendulum standing up and balancing on its own, which was what got me interested in robotics, and what inspired me to take up further studies in the field of robotics.” 

Since then, Dr Zhang has worked on multiple robotics projects both in school and outside of school. He shares that he is always thrilled whenever he successfully creates a robot that can solve a practical challenge, which can be seen in the work that he does at Weston Robot. 

The 5G-enabled SMURF is a battery-operated USV by Weston Robot and M1 that can collect garbage, monitor water quality, collect water samples, and even patrol a body of water.

The 5G-enabled SMURF is a battery-operated USV by Weston Robot and M1 that can collect garbage, monitor water quality, collect water samples, and even patrol a body of water.

The 5G-enabled SMURF is a battery-operated USV by Weston Robot and M1 that can collect garbage, monitor water quality, collect water samples, and even patrol a body of water.

2. His very first robot is still in use today 

Since discovering his love for robotics, the very first complete robotic system Dr Zhang built was a medical robot, which helped doctors inject sperms into cells for fertilisation purposes via Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injections (ICSIs)—an ambitious first project!  

“Creating this robotic system was a challenging task. I had to make sure that it was capable of tracking and capturing a sperm, then injecting it into a cell autonomously under a microscope. It required conventional computer vision because there was no such thing as AI yet at that time, real-time control, and many other forms of mechatronic (an interdisciplinary branch of engineering involving mechanical, electronic, control, and computer engineering) skills.”  

Dr Zhang shares that his system is currently still in use in labs, and that there have been discussions about expanding this technology for other microsurgeries. 

Dr Zhang believes that robots can come in handy in supporting labour-intensive or dangerous jobs.

3. He is a fan of exoskeletons

Apart from original robots, Weston Robot also lists exoskeletons as a part of their product offerings. These exoskeletons are developed by American company SuitX, and backed by Dr Zhang and Weston Robot, who are promoting these exoskeletons in Asia. 

Exoskeletons are wearable devices that are designed to make wearers feel less tired, and reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries, especially for individuals working in physical jobs like construction. These exoskeletons are customisable, and are designed to be able to work in unison to support the shoulders, back, and legs of wearers. 

“Exoskeletons complement the automation of robotics. They can be categorised as a special robotic device used in situations where automation is not feasible, and manpower is still required. This would include, for example, airplane inspections and logistic work in unconstrained environments. Since manpower is always required for these jobs, exoskeletons help reduce muscle fatigue, as well as the probability of workers sustaining injuries on the job.” 

Further down the road, these exoskeletons can also be used in mobility rehabilitation processes in hospitals and care centres. 

4. He has mixed feelings about robots on the big screen 

Robots have been portrayed in many ways in sci-fi films and mass media, most typically in dystopian scenarios, where robots and AI outsmart humans and take over the world (think Black Mirror and Terminator). Dr Zhang has mixed feelings about this. 

“While such films and forms of media are good to help us educate society about the future of robotics, they can also set the wrong expectations of what a robot can do today. Using exoskeletons for example, many customers often ask us whether they can become Ironman after wearing our devices, which won’t happen within the next few years.” 

When asked to compare the pros and cons of using robots for certain tasks as opposed to humans, Dr Zhang says that robots are typically made to do more high-frequency, high-precision, and sometimes high-risk jobs. But when it comes to jobs that demand a larger degree of creative freedom, like preparing a tasty meal, humans trump robots with their dexterity. He also shares that there will always be some form of setup required that comes with the use of robots, like an initial mapping of the site of deployment, which can be time-consuming. 

A ground quadruped robot with 5G and digital twin integrated by Weston Robot. Dr Zhang shares that the open spaces at The Chadwick have been useful in testing out their products. 

5. He thinks “robots will be everywhere” very soon 

When asked about the future of robotics, Dr Zhang says that he thinks robots will be everywhere. He predicts that the mega trend is that robots will embrace AI, cloud technology, and 5G. Robots will also be cheaper, safer, modular, and better at multitasking.  

However, he shares that he does have his concerns about what this means for society as a whole. “For example, when we all own flying cars what would the commute look like? When robots can do all of the urban farming work, what would happen to farmers who export agricultural products?”  

Of course, he agrees that robots can never fully replace humans and animals, because of the lack of genuine emotions. For instance, Dr Zhang says that there are many cute and robust humanoid robots and robotic dogs, yet these robots cannot provide real companionship and form bonds as strongly as a real dog can.  

This is but one of the many fundamental problems that Dr Zhang feels has yet to be solved in robotics. But for Weston Robot, Dr Zhang hopes to achieve a breakthrough in the realm of soft robotics.  

“The breakthrough we want to achieve is soft robotics, for example, advances in materials used. This means that robots will not be all metal and plastic as they are today, but soft. We can wear these robots like clothes. It will help the paralysed walk again, and help the elderly live better lives with enhanced mobility.”  

Knowing Dr Zhang, these dreams might very well become a reality in the near future. After all, Weston Robot has already deployed robust USVs for both land and water, robot arms, and so much more. That said, we’re excited to see what Dr Zhang and his team will roll out next. Hint: they’ll be post-Covid-19 robotics solutions, such as mowing robots, remote (or underground) patrolling and inspection robots, and cleaning robots for indoors and outdoors. 

Dr Zhang and team with one of their newest robots - a 5G-enabled robotic mower.

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