The Next Big Thing

Hong Kong-made 'firefighting' robots catch the attention of tech giant IBM

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 March, 2015, 2:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 6:22pm

Wildfires in the United States, Australia and other countries are not only getting larger, but are causing more economic and human damage.

Manned watchtowers, close-circuit television, satellite infrared sensing systems and automatic smoke detectors have so far been either inadequate or too costly for the job of spotting uncontrolled fire in forests and the countryside.

A Hong Kong-based start-up, Insight Robotics, has proven that there is a smarter way to detect wildfires no matter how small, using an automated system that combines a high-precision, pan-tilt robot with thermal imaging sensors and advanced artificial intelligence vision technology.

Its Computer Vision Wildfire Detection System has been used by the Guangdong Academy of Forestry to protect the mainland’s forests and ecosystem since 2010, recording a 100 per cent detection rate in multiple field trials and deployments.

This early-warning system has been implemented in more than 10 forestry and local government agencies in five provinces and seven cities across the mainland.

Founded in 2009 and a graduate last year of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park’s flagship incubation programme, Insight Robotics claims to have developed “the most advanced wildfire detection system on planet Earth”.

The co-founders of Insight Robotics, Kevin Chan Kar-ho and Rex Sham Pui-sum, further backed that claim after Insight Robotics was named last year Entrepreneur of the Year at the IBM SmartCamp Global Finals in Las Vegas last month.

“The difference for Insight Robotics is that they have proven technology that was very innovative ... Insight Robotics’ solution allows fire fighters to locate a forest fire quickly, giving them a jump at extinguishing the flames,” IBM said.

The Insight Robotics system can detect and locate wood- or vegetation-based fires – as small as two metres by one metre in size – within a 5km radius, covering up to nearly 80 sq km of forest and living area.

The robot then sends real-time images and the location of the fire to control centres for manual or computer analysis, allowing local fire services to stop the flames from spreading.

The award received by Insight Robotics followed its win at the IBM SmartCamp Asia-Pacific Regionals in Bangalore in November last year and the IBM SmartCamp China held in Beijing in August.

The SmartCamp events are part of US technology giant IBM”s Global Entrepreneur Programme, which brings together start-ups, investors and experienced business mentors.

Sham, who serves as chief analyst of Insight Robotics, said the company’s success at the IBM SmartCamp events showed “that the future is bright for innovative applications of technology that have a positive impact on society”.

Allen Ma, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp, saw the win by Insight Robotics as helping burnish the city’s credentials in fostering technology innovation and nurturing new businesses.

“Insight Robotics’ innovations are going to change the world into a better and safer place, and it all started when a local university graduate decided to anchor his research and development ideas in Science Park four years ago,” Ma said.

“This accomplishment is a solid testimonial to the Science Park’s capability to groom global techno-preneurs from concept blueprint to commercialisation. We see a lot of innovative ideas with impactful social and economic value in town these days.”

Insight Robotics announced that it raised US$2 million from its Series A financing round in October, following US$2 million received in seed funding earlier.


A young technology inventor dubbed "son of the star" by the media went to university straight after Form Five - and now seems to have found success in his mobile app development company.

Stark Chan Yik-hei said Bull.B Tech, which he co-founded just before graduating from the University of Science and Technology in 2012, made a "seven-digit" profit last year.

Some of the company's clients included the government, restaurant chain The Spaghetti House, insurer FWD and developer Sun Hung Kai Properties, Chan said. It had developed more than 30 apps and also provided digital services including website design.

"We haven't had great success in our business," he said. "We are still in the phase of fighting and getting by."

At 14, Chan tasted success when a domestic security robot he invented won an award at the 2004 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which attracted participation from about seven million high-school pupils every year. An asteroid was later named after him, inspiring local media to nickname him "son of the star".

Two years later, he enrolled in HKUST after finishing Form Five, majoring in electronics and computer engineering, despite his mediocre performance in the Certificate of Education Examination that screened pupils for entry into Form Six and, subsequently, university.

"Before graduation, I was reading books on how to turn theories into market products and I wanted to try it myself," Chan said.

Bull.B Tech's latest product, Photo Booth, is a smart "selfie system" that takes photographs of people standing in front of the screen. Users can add additional features on their photos, such as a pair of glasses, a moustache or flowers. They can then download the pictures to their smartphones by scanning the attached barcodes.

Shirley Zhao