The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has invited public comments as well as inputs from stakeholders on the draft "National Strategy for Robotics" (NSR) by 31 October.
The strategy is aimed at "strengthening all pillars in the innovation cycle of robotic technology, while also providing a robust institutional framework for ensuring the effective implementation of these interventions." The MeitY invite for inputs comes at a time when the operational stock of industrial robots in India has more than doubled between 2016 and 2021 to reach 33,220 units, averaging at an annual growth rate of 16 per cent. Presently, in terms of annual industrial installations, India ranks 10th globally as per the World Robotics Report, 2022.
But what are some of the essential components of the present draft?
What's in the draft?
The draft NSR proposes a policy framework for the implementation of robotics in various sectors, with the aim of making India a global robotics leader by 2030. It also builds upon the mandates of the Make in India 2.0 plans, which identify robotics as one of the 27 sub-sectors to further enhance India's integration in the global value chain.
The draft has so far identified manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, and national security as the four core sectors to prioritise robotics automation.
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According to the current draft, MeitY will serve as the nodal agency for robotics, with a two-tier institutional framework to facilitate the implementation of the NSR. The implementation will be directly undertaken under MeitY's 'National Robotics Mission' or the NRM.
The draft also proposes fiscal and non-fiscal interventions by the NRM, for upscaling innovation in robotics. These interventions will be specifically aimed at developing funding mechanisms for robotics start-ups as well as promoting exports.
Major recommendations of the draft NFR
First and foremost, the NFR has recommended the creation of a robust regulatory framework, led by the Robotics Innovation Unit (RIU), an independent agency that will function under MeitY as a part of India AI.
The NFR also proposes the implementation of Centres of Excellence (CoEs) in Robotics. The CoEs will be categorised under foundational and applied research. The NFR suggests that for application-based research, CoEs should enlist private sector intervention in priority sectors to help with experimental prototyping, as well as small-volume production for the initial phase of commercialisation.
The current draft also lays out clear plans for providing advisory support to start-ups, harnessing the research potential of higher education institutes, and the development of robotics industrial zones.
Most importantly, in the initial stages, the NFR draft has proposed that the central government should act as a demand aggregator for robotic systems manufactured in India. Through a proposed Public Procurement Policy for Robotics, the government has been advised to incentivise domestic production over mere import or assembly of products by enabling purchase preference for suppliers who meet the minimum local content requirement.
Why is the NFR needed?
Besides the aim of integrating robotics into the identified sectors, the draft also points out that "there is a general lack of adoption and growth of the robotics ecosystem in India."
The primary challenges are high import dependence, costly hardware components, and insufficient investments in research and development. Robots consist of numerous complex and minute parts that need precise knowledge and skills for assembling. Salman Waris, Managing Partner at TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, points out that the current state adoption of robotics in the country is "too ambitious, keeping in mind the lack of skilled resources, technical expertise impeding the growth of robotics ecosystem in the country." He also adds that the problem becomes more acute due to the challenges of import dependence and costly hardware components, and a comprehensive integration with India's artificial intelligence programme, leading to further "privacy and security risks." India heavily imports its robotics components from China and Japan, which further exacerbates this risk.
What is the Global scenario for Robotics regulation?
China has committed a total investment of $43.5 million towards robotics policy, until 2022. It has three specific plans. The 14th Five-Year Strategy Plan, 2021 aims to improve innovation capabilities and increase the supply of high-end products. Then there is the Key Special Programme on Intelligent Robots, 2022, which supports the policy framework for the earlier plan and focuses on increasing the manufacturing of industrial robots, service robots, and special robots. Finally, the Robotics+ Application Action Plan of 2023 aims to augment robot density.
United States of America:
The USA has invested $15.7 million in 2021-2022, towards robotics. The National Robotics Initiative 3.0 aims to support fundamental research while the US Department of Defense (DoD) Budget for unmanned systems focuses primarily on unmanned systems in defence.
Japan leads in financial commitment towards robots, with a whopping $1,370.5 million commitment made for the financial year (FY) 2020-2025. Its New Robot Strategy (2016-2020) is developing plans for sectoral R&D projects, global standardisation, regulatory reform, and robotics competitions and awards. Japan also holds the World Robotics Summit every year, under this plan.
Economies like Germany and South Korea have also come up with robust robotics development plans with the latter committing an investment of $451.23 million between 2019 and 2023.