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Welcome to Robot-Land The star attractions of Japan's robot industry

Japan's robot industry is thriving. No longer just the walking-talking toy or the automated "arm" of manufacturing, today's robots are making inroads in non-industrial areas as diverse as nursing, hospitality and security. The potential of new and emerging markets has seen a research and development surge that shows no signs of slowing. Jstyle looks at this Japanese boom industry and meets some of its star attractions.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industry

A cute, family robot that enjoys conversations, Wakamaru delivers natural and enriched communications with people like no other robot can.

Wakamaru is purpose-built to be a member of the family. The brainchild of Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, Wakamaru interacts with the people it lives with, asking and answering questions as in any normal conversation. It can recognise up to 10 individual people, and maintains eye contact when spoken to. Wakamaru is not switched on or off but has a lifestyle suited to its owner: roaming the house by day looking for someone to chat to; sleeping at night so it can recharge. The market for Wakamaru could include, but not be limited to, people living on their own.

The promise and potential of such untested, non-industrial markets helps explain the business boom in robotics. We may soon see a proliferation of robots employed in the entertainment, service, hospitality, nursing, security and cleaning industries.

According to the Japan Robot Association, the value of robot production hit a historical high at the turn of the century, with a record 647.5 billion yen (AU$6.55 billion) in 2000. But that figure was eclipsed in 2005 and again in 2006, coming in at 660 billion yen (AU$6.68 billion) and 710 billion yen (AU$7.19 billion) respectively.

Thanks to vast public and private investment, plenty of Japanese robots have been developed or are in the design stage. At the same time, companies are working hard to be both creative and pragmatic in these forays into the future.

Security and insurance company Alsok has developed ReBorg-Q, a robot that carries out nightly patrols of Japan's Odaiba Shopping Mall. With its inbuilt cameras and recognition technology, it is able to pick up on intruders, fires, water leaks and more, assisting human security guards in their duties. Furea, designed by Tmsuk, is an automated hospital guide. This robot employs voice recognition technology and has a touch panel on its body to assist visitors in finding their way around. Furea can print out hospital maps, or project a three-dimensional map using an inbuilt projector. Some experts see such security and service robots as the key to addressing a shrinking labour force brought on by Japan's declining birth rate. Once mass produced, such robots can co-exist with humans and deliver low-cost services.

Not all robots are designed to be helpful to society. Sakakibara Kikai Company's Land Walker was created for the sole purpose of fun. The ultimate in boys' toys, the heavy-duty Land Walker towers at 3.5m. It comes equipped with two air cannons firing cushioned balls, perfect for playing robot wars with your friends. And when the Land Walker advances as you sit in its cockpit high above the ground, an adrenaline rush is assured.

Professor Sankai, University of Tsukuba/CYBERDYNE Inc.

Developed by Professor Sankai's university team, the Hybrid Assistive Limbs (HAL) robot can help the elderly regain their mobility.

An astounding robot with massive potential is the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) developed by Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai and his team at the University of Tsukuba. Unveiled at Aichi's Expo 2005, HAL is a "robot-suit'' worn over the clothes to give the user a boost of strength in each of their limbs. The mechanics of HAL are truly ingenious. Every time a person makes a walking or lifting movement, the brain sends electrical impulses to the muscles, which then appear as faint, bio-electric signals on the skin surface. Professor Sankai and his team developed a system to detect these skin signals. HAL's computer then instantly analyses the signal, calculates the amount of power the person intends to generate, and then delivers appropriate power assistance. Because all of the computer analysis and commands happen in the fraction of a second before the muscles actually move, the robot-suit wearer can move as one with the robot.

HAL was originally developed to give "legs'' to the elderly or people with a disability. Recent development of HAL-5 delivers upper body limb-assistance as well, widening the robot's potential. Beyond helping people regain mobility, the technology could assist rescuers in disaster situations, labourers in factories and health carers to lift and move patients. Due to its commercial potential and utility, there has been a concerted push to reduce HAL's production costs.

While the potential for non-industrial robots is immense, the market has many challenges. In industrial robotic applications, the demand for cars, textiles and other manufactured goods has been somewhat predictable in past decades. Though vast, the non-industrial market is unpredictable and open-ended.

murata toyota
Murata Boy
Murata Manufacturing Co. Ltd

The friendly Murata Boy likes to ride his bicycle. It pedals, steers and stops without falling over. Its motto is, "when you fall off a bicycle, get right back on!"
Toyota Partner Robot `Mountable`
Toyota Motor Corporation

Mountable is a walking console that brings a different meaning to ''going for a walk''.
With the intention of assisting wheelchair-bound people, it delivers new ways to help
find your way around.
http://www.toyota.co.jp/en/vision/ emerging_tech/p_robot/index.html

toyota honda
Toyota Partner Robot 'Walking'
Toyota Motor Corporation

With stable footing and lips like a human, this robot can walk and playtrumpet at the same time. Getting robots to use human tools is a bigchallenge, but Toyota has delivered a
competent musician.
http://www.toyota.co.jp/en/vision/ emerging_tech/p_robot/index.html
Honda Motor Co. Ltd

The cutting-edge ASIMO has been developed to be as close to human as possible. It can walk, go up steps, respond to voice commands and open and close doors.

One issue holding back investment in non-industrial robotics is the lack of standardisation. Many service-oriented robots must travel between rooms or offices and interact with humans, but there are no standards governing robot size, speed, mobility and other factors relating to human safety.

Another issue for non-industrial robots is making them adaptable to an ever-changing environment. An industrial robot may perform automated, repetitive movements well in its factory environment, but a service robot must move in an environment with many potential dangers to itself and its surroundings. Changing a robot's behaviour according to a changing environment requires complex recognition and calculation systems that are hard to develop. The human environment is extremely difficult for robot adaptation, which is why many existing service robots only operate in controlled environments like an after-hours shopping mall or a quiet hospital corridor.

Mitsubishi Research Institute director Kazuhiko Noguchi provided a glimpse into the future of robotics when quoted in the Tokyo Shimbun this year. "When robot technology begins to assist our everyday lives, our individual abilities will grow rapidly as well, allowing us to do many more things... However, as technology advances, the burden on people increases as well. What is important is not being completely reliant on robots, but how well we accommodate them into our lives.''

This is an interesting reminder to developers and those who look forward to a future where robots are integrated into our daily lives. Successful co-existence depends on how we envision a society abundant with robots. Given the challenges, it may be a long way to the development of a robot capable of many human abilities. More likely, robots will be mass-produced for specialised roles in defined environments. Standardisation will be as crucial as the creative eye of the developer. It is a fascinating time for Japan's robot industry, with high hopes the next Astro Boy will emerge from the current boom.

wl-16 furea

The world's first two-legged walking unit that is able to make its way around outdoors while carrying a person. It has a high potential for being used for medical purposes.

A hospital guide-robot that can help visitors find their way around. With its approachable look, you'd be tempted to ask for directions even if you know where you are going!

chorio alsok

Small and with smooth lines, Chroino looks like a character straight out of Astro Boy. It walks and moves smoothly with little discomfort.

A security robot that tirelessly patrols an empty shopping mall at night, ReBorg-Q can detect intruders, fires and assist humans with first-hand information. Go you brave thing!

Land Walker
Sakakibara Kikai Co. Ltd

A Star Wars dream come true.A ride in the Land Walker is pure excitement. Imagine getting one for Christmas!

Tmsuk's Enryuu is a power robot assisting humans in rescue operations by lifting masses of up to one tonne. It can operate as a power shovel or, for work from afar, using remote control systems.


FT is a sexy female robot. While robots have conventionally tended to imitate males in their looks, FT has a feminine and the moves to go with the looks.
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