Japan caretaker robot kneels to lift people off floor

The caretaker robot could be on the market by 2015.

A caretaker robot developed in Japan has been equipped with powerful motors in its hips and advanced feedback sensors so that it can bend over and gently lift infirm patients from the ground.

The "RIBA-II," developed at a research center in Nagoya, was designed for use in nursing homes and assisted care facilities, which are rapidly expanding as the number of elderly increase in the country.

The wheeled robot has a smallish, bear-like head, which sits atop a thick torso with long, powerful arms. Video of the machine in action shows it bending over to nearly horizontal to pick up a mock patient from a futon mattress spread on the floor -- a common sleeping arrangement in Japan.

"We visited care facilities and found that moving people around was the most tiring thing for workers," said Yu Kato, a robot specialist at Tokai Rubber Industries.

Care workers in Japan lift patients an average of 40 times a day, according to RIKEN, a Japanese government-run research body that worked on the robot with Tokai Rubber.

Kato said the group plans to put the robot in facilities for testing next year, and begin sales from 2015. The current target price is around ¥6 million ($78,000).

The machine can lift up to 80 kilograms (176 pounds) from ground level, wheelchairs and beds. It has sheets of a specially designed rubber sensor mesh along its arms and chest to provide feedback while carrying patients.

It is the second of the RIBA line, short for "Robot for Interactive Body Assistance." The first model, announced in 2009, could move people up to 60 kilograms between a bed and a wheelchair. Built before the rubber mesh was invented, it had about 400 individual sensors to control its lifting, Kato said.

As robots gradually make their way into everyday society in Japan, care for the elderly is seen as a major application. There are insufficient workers to handle the aging population, and robots have been developed to wash, monitor and even entertain their wards.

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