Auto Industry

New item in XPENG’s stable

Chinese electric car firms are making animal robots


XPENG’s new horsey-bot

What would you do if you came face-to-face with a bionic animal: head straight for the exit or move in closer and give it a pat?

That kind of decision isn’t too far off, given how many robotic animals are approaching commercialisation, especially in China, where a spate of companies have released prototype designs this year.

The latest comes from a subsidiary of electric vehicle (EV) start-up XPENG, which has just unveiled the world’s first robotic horse, called Little White Dragon in Chinese.

The animal has been designed as a cutesy unicorn, with a soothing yellow and white colour scheme, curved haunches and large, expressive eyes. It’s small enough for a child to ride, with the company claiming that the robot has been designed to facilitate “emotional interaction”. The company says that the robot horse can also be fitted out with an intelligent driving system of lidars and cameras. that allows the animal to “sense” its surroundings, avoid obstacles, and move and follow objects on its own.

XPENG’s horse competes for attention with an array of bionic dogs, which other tech companies have fashioned recently. Tencent’s robotics arm boasts Max (introduced in March) and Ollie (in June), while Xiaomi let CyberDog (known as Iron Egg in Chinese) loose in August.

Another of the more advanced debutants comes from Unitree Robotics, whose Go1 robot dog can keep pace with joggers for up to an hour.

The leading Western competitor in the space is Boston Dynamics, which first created a quadrupedal robot called BigDog in 2005. It started selling an updated version called Spot to the general public in the summer of 2020.

At $74,500 an ‘animal’, Spot ranks as one of the world’s most expensive pedigree dogs. The bionic canine hasn’t been universally well received, however. In New York the NYPD’s version, nicknamed Digidog, had to be retired from service after residents were horrified when it was sent into a housing estate to assist in the handling of a domestic dispute. A spokesman for city mayor Bill de Blasio said that he was glad that Digidog had been decommissioned because it was “creepy, alienating and sends the wrong message to New Yorkers”.

At the highest-end of the market, bionic dogs are being detailed to enter areas or perform tasks deemed too dangerous for humans. Checking for gas leaks or suspicious packages are examples.

So too are surveillance and patrols in high-risk areas.

Tianjin University professor Chung-ming Own told the Global Times that robot dogs in China could move into the mass commercialisation phase sooner than in the US because its companies are targeting the less sophisticated end of the market, with sales to individual consumers.

For instance, the Go1 doesn’t feature as many advanced applications as Spot and is pitched at individual users who want to take it out for a walk in the park or put a few groceries on its back during a trip to the local shops.

At an equivalent of about $3,000, it costs a fraction of the price of more advanced models and taps in cleverly to two of China’s fastest-growing fascinations: pets and robotics technology.

No wonder that the Global Times concurs that “the ‘Paw Patrol’ moment could arrive earlier for China than the US”.

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