FOR A STRONGER FUTURE
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Amid Covid-19’s disruption to everyday lives, Japan’s robotics revolution has found a new cause to be celebrated as the industry provides unexpected ways to enrich and protect lives when people need it the most.
The pandemic has created life-altering restrictions to human mobility. Yet, these limitations are what Japanese robotics companies have planned to overcome. As the pandemic raged on, engineers have found that robots originally built to improve the social participation of people with disabilities can also play transformative roles in daily life.
During Covid-19, these machines are even proving to be life-saving. Across Tokyo, robots have already begun work to fight the virus head-on, acting as disinfection squads that take sanitation workers out of harm’s way.
One of the Japanese companies spearheading the robotics rescue is Ory Laboratory. Its OriHime-D humanoid robots act as an avatar for people with disabilities, allowing them to be “piloted” remotely through their computer using hand and eye movements. The use of OriHime-D humanoid gives these disabled members of society a second life, enabling them to act as “robot waiters” even while isolated at home or bedridden.
Ory’s engineers discovered that their robot could be just as helpful to the non-disabled.
“We’re seeing more cases of OriHime being used as a shopkeeper to tend to their stores remotely or using it to visit a friend’s house to hang out.”
Graduation ceremonies are also seeing the OriHime in action; students who have been unable to go in person have chosen to participate via OriHime.
“The usage of robots as avatars is becoming much more popular than we anticipated,” Yoshifuji observes. “We see our OriHime robot as more than just a tool for performing remote work. Our robot OriHime has been a conduit to our existence.”
In hindsight, says Yoshifuji, it isn’t too surprising to see how popular OriHime has become.
“Amid this struggle, we’re seeing more uptake for a technology originally developed for bedridden people,” he says.
Overcoming major societal challenges has been a driving ambition for some of Japan’s largest corporations, including Toyota, which teamed up with Tokyo-based AI startup Preferred Networks Inc to create its Human Support Robot (HSR).
Toyota sees the HSR robot program as an investment with large societal dividends, particularly in Japan, where it ultimately hopes to deploy them in homes and hospitals to support its aging population.
“We want to help our customers lead better lives through a new form of movement, where you can virtually transport a part or all of yourself to remote working areas.”
While the HSR project is still in its pilot phase, the robot has already passed some crucial real-world tests.
“We want interactions with HSRs to be less awkward, so we’re continuing research into how to move robots at normal walking speeds so they don’t startle people, reduce motor noises which can be discomforting, and avoid collisions.”
Covid-19 has reminded the world of the importance of sanitation and basic hygiene, while robots are proving that remotely controlled machines can have an instrumental role in how cities prevent or control disease.
To tackle the virus where it thrives, robotics company ZMP released a robot designed specifically to disinfect complex high-density urban areas. The robot, PATORO, has already been deployed across Tokyo.
“PATORO sprays mist when performing disinfection. When using chlorine dioxide water, the liquid kills viruses floating in the air and various uneven crevices. Because it’s mist, it can effectively cover and disinfect wider areas. It’s risky for people to perform the disinfection, so there’s a need for robot-based solutions that keep humans out of the equation.”
Since its launch, PATORO has generated the demand for more permanent autonomous disinfection campaigns.
“ZMP is planning to launch a service in March to meet those needs,” continues Taniguchi. “As with the disinfection services, we’re seeing demand for cleaning solutions that don’t rely on human workers.”
ZMP's PATORO and its two other robots, DeliRo and RakuRo, which perform unmanned delivery and autonomous driving services, are likely to become a familiar sight in Japan’s urban landscape. It’s a legacy that will have positive repercussions for years to come.
The Covid-19 pandemic has tested society’s existential zeal at a historical level. Nonetheless, Japan’s robotics revolution has been able to answer the call and is on its way to delivering an enduring impact after years of patient investment and development.
Guided by the principle of “Leave No One Behind”, Japan will further enhance its cooperation with international corporations towards achieving its goal
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