Robot researchers work to aid, save lives

Sony's Aibo robots, or any one of the latest humanoid robots may be cute and draw all the attention, but there's a serious side to Japan's robot industry and it is on display this week at Robodex 2003, which opened Thursday in Yokohama, just outside of Tokyo.

A number of companies and universities are working on robot technology that is designed to either save people's lives or make them easier. The latter category includes robots designed to perform jobs that are dangerous for humans, such as mine clearance work.

"This robot is designed to dig the ground and explode mines and it can do it with no electricity so we can take it to very remote places, such as the inside of Afghanistan," said Naota Furihata, a student at Tokyo Institute of Technology, of the Mine Hand robot that he developed. The robot has been in development since April 2002 and is almost complete, he said.

The Japanese government and several non-governmental groups funded development of the machine and are now interested in taking it to Afghanistan to be used in actual mine clearance work. Some of Furihata's fellow students have also spent time working on mine clearance robots and they were also on show at the exhibition. They included a remotely operated robot that can travel over dangerous ground and search out mines using a sensor mounted on a long arm.

Nearby, Chiba University was also showing several mine clearance robots, including the Comet III, which weighs in at 1 ton. Considerably bigger and more complex than Furihata's machine, the robots walk on six legs in a fashion similar to a spider and are designed to make the job of clearing mines considerably less dangerous. De-mining resulted in at least 500 deaths from 1996 to 2002, according to a database maintained by the Journal of Mine Action.

A humanoid robot developed as part of a Japanese public-private partnership demonstrated its ability to sit in a backhoe and operate it. The HRP-2 is also a prototype but this ability could mean it is used in place of humans for work that is dangerous.

The suitability of robots for such work was underlined by Shin Furukawa, director of corporate planning at robot-maker Tmsuk. He was in contact with JOC when its Tokaimura Uranium processing plant suffered Japan's worst nuclear accident to-date, in September 1999. The accident resulted in the overexposure to radiation of three workers, two of whom died.

"I was in talking to the person at (plant operator) JOC (Co. Ltd.) who had a list of names in front of him with their ages and relationships," said Furukawa. "He basically had to choose who to send in to the plant. If we had a robot, we could have sent that in instead."

Universities are also spending time researching robotic technologies that can aid people in everyday tasks. Kanagawa Institute of Technology and the Science University of Tokyo were both showing off 'wearable robots.'

Still in the experimental stage, these are eventually intended to take the form of items of clothing with built in robotic technology that will enhance the strength of the person wearing it. This could be used to enable a single nurse, for example, to lift a patient out of a bed and place them in a wheelchair, as was demonstrated at Robodex using a prototype suit.

Less advanced but at the commercialization stage was Banryu from Tmsuk. This four-legged robot allows the owner to keep track of their house, for example, while away by monitoring its surroundings, providing visual and audio links through a cell phone and responding to remote commands. Matsushita Electric Works' Hospi will also help people and is targeted at use in hospitals, where it can transport documents or drugs between departments.