Panasonic has big plans for robots

The company wants to make robotics a big business and has previewed its latest research

Panasonic is getting serious about robotics and has begun a push to commercialize a series of robots over the next few years.

The company formed a robotics unit last year and has its sights set on sales of ¥100 billion (US$1.1 billion) in 2015. Panasonic achieved total sales of ¥7.8 trillion in the financial year to March so such sales would have represented a little over 1 percent of the company's overall business last year.

Panasonic hopes to reach this goal through sales of home and industrial robots and presented some of its latest research and development on Thursday at its robotics laboratory in Osaka.

For hospital and industrial use the company has developed a porter robot that can be used to assist workers in pulling heavy objects like medical carts. The robot is based on the same motor and parts used in Panasonic's electrical bicycles so is cheaper and easier to produce that something based on proprietary components. It can pull up to 200 kilograms.

Panasonic also envisages it being used for applications such as helping staff pull beds or wheelchairs. It is also possible to have the robot hook up to a wheelchair and turn the control column around so the wheelchair's occupant can move around a building without effort.

For the kitchen, the company has developed a robot that can assist with serving food and washing dishes.

It's a large robot arm with a four-fingered hand that can grip and manipulate objects such as glasses, plates and cooking utensils. In a demonstration the robot took a plate from a dishwasher and set it down on the counter, picked up a spoon and scooped some food from a pan and then dropped the food into a waiting bowl. It also took a glass from the kitchen counter and emptied it into a sink before placing it in the dishwasher for cleaning.

The robot has sensors in its fingers to make sure it doesn't grip too tightly and a camera overhead provides a view of where things are so it doesn't get confused.

At the beginning of October Panasonic demonstrated a robotic bed that can transform into a wheelchair on command from the user. It's designed for people who have limited mobility and is intended to provide an extra level of independence as it enables them to get out of bed and move around the house without assistance from others.

That bed is also something Panasonic wants to put on the market, but its launch could be held up by the lack of safety standards and liability laws concerning robots that interact with humans. Guidelines could be out as soon as 2012 paving the way for its commercialization, Panasonic said.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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