November 02, 2015      

Robotics is more than just an industry in Japan; it is well on its way to becoming an integral part of the nation’s culture.

Long an industrial automation powerhouse, Japan is now rapidly embracing robotics across virtually all business sectors, including hospitality and entertainment. Japan expects that by boosting workplace efficiency and productivity, robots will help the nation’s businesses become more competitive in global markets.

A growing number of Japanese government and business leaders also believe that robots may offer the only way of maintaining an acceptable standard of living in a rapidly aging nation with a shrinking workforce and a deep-rooted resistance to immigration.

Japan’s dedication to an automated future begins at the very highest echelon of the nation’s government. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a “robotics revolution.” His administration has launched a five-year push to deepen the use of intelligent machines in manufacturing, supply chains, construction, and healthcare, while expanding the robotics market from 660 billion yen ($5.47 billion) to 2.4 trillion yen ($20 billion) by 2020.

In 2014, the Japanese government set a goal of creating a new Industrial revolution driven by robotics. This revitalization plan was revised this year to become Japan’s “New Robot Strategy: Vision, Strategy, Action Plan,” with the ultimate goal of establishing and maintaining the country’s position as an international robotics superpower.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a robot

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a robot assembling cash machines.

The new strategy follows Germany as a role model and envisions the eventual automation of just about everything, including terrestrial vehicles, agricultural machinery, disaster-relief services, cosmetics manufacturing, and even pharmaceuticals production.

The Japan Robot Association and the Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun are planning a Grand Robot Exhibition from Dec. 2 to 5 to showcase 500 local robot manufacturers and related businesses.

The national planning document also calls for the widespread deployment of “smart” factories” — fully automated production facilities that operate continuously.

Another initiative goal is the deep integration of service robots into everyday business and social life. The document sets an initial benchmark of 30 percent penetration by 2020.

Japan invests in robotics R&D

The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is Japan’s largest and most influential public research and development management body.

In a 2014 whitepaper, “Robotization of Industry, Business and Our Life,” the organization recommends ways for Japanese society to accommodate robotics. It notes, however, that public acceptance may be hard to come by in some areas.

In healthcare, for example, patients and long-term care residents may resist being examined or tended to by a robot rather than a human expert. The report also noted that many people, particularly individuals with cognitive problems, will have difficulty establishing trustworthy relationships with robots.

Academic research is central to Japan’s robotic aspirations. There are more than 70 university-sponsored robotic laboratories in Japan, according to the Robotics Society of Japan. Leading labs include the facilities at Kyoto University, Yokohama National University, Osaka University, and the Nagoya Institute of Technology.

Public research organizations involved in robotics development include the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the National Institute of Informatics, and the National Institute of Science and Technology.

Terapio makes its rounds

In alignment with the New Robot Strategy, a great deal of Japanese robotics research is focusing on the development of service robots. Researchers at the Toyohashi University of Technology, for example, have created Terapio, a mobile robot that’s designed to replace the medical cart that usually accompanies nurses and other healthcare workers during their hospital rounds.

Terapio recognizes its environment and autonomously tracks a specified human while avoiding obstacles using a differential drive steering system that provides both quiet operation and smooth omnidirectional mobility.

By lightly grasping Terapio’s ring-shaped power-assist handle, an operator can accurately control the robot by applying only a slight force. Terapio can also record patient vital signs and display relevant data, such as personal health records.

According to Toyohashi Tech, Terapio was developed for use in medical facilities. The robot’s functions are managed via a top-mounted touch panel, which is also used to input and display data.

Both operators and patients can recognize the robot’s status and actions by viewing the expressions shown on the LCD panel, which serves as the robot’s face.

The image changes to reflect the robot’s current operating mode — “power assist,” “tracking,” or “rounds.”

“As we were developing Terapio, we could clearly imagine the human-robot symbiosis,” said Ryosuke Tasaki, an assistant professor at Toyohashi University of Technology.

How Terapio mobile robot works in a hospital

Terapio has different modes depending on where it is in the hospital. Source: Toyohashi University of Technology

“By constantly promoting the pursuit of system-integration technology, life with robots will be a reality in the near future,” he predicted, adding that “an ongoing daily effort to incorporate high-tech robotics into our activities will be the best way to realize life in our future society.”

Getting costs down will be key to expanding the use of service robots in various fields.

“We want to bring down the cost of a robot [down] to 100,000 yen [$830] per unit, but it still costs 500,000 yen [$4,150] or 1 million yen [$8,300],” said Kentaro Okamoto, who supervises robot-related projects at Japan’s economic ministry. “We don’t have an infinite budget.”

Robots, AI to facilitate logistics

Various industrial labs operated by major Japanese corporations are also playing a major role in robotics research and development.

Hitachi Ltd., for example, reported in August that it had developed a two-armed robot that can pick up items from shelves in less than half the time required by existing robots.

The electronics giant said that the robot was developed to collect items in storage. It can pick up a plastic bottle from inside a box using one arm, or carry a box of items using both arms, the company said.

The robot, which Hitachi expects to make commercially available in about five years, can also use one arm to hold a box and the other to place or retrieve an item.

In another project, Hitachi is looking to bring artificial intelligence to enterprise management. The company has developed a program that will allow robots to deliver instructions to employees based on analyses of big data and the workers’ routines.

“Work efficiency improved by 8 percent in warehouses with the new artificial intelligence program, compared to those without them,” a Hitachi spokeswoman said. “The program can examine an extremely large amount of data to provide the most efficient instruction, which is impossible for human managers to handle.”

Warehouse automation promises to lower the cost of distribution operations for a wide range of businesses. Drug wholesaler Toho Holdings Co.’s 10 billion yen ($80 million) automated distribution center, which became fully operational in January 2014, employs about 130 workers, roughly half the number at another facility of a similar size. The company claims that productivity per worker is 77 percent higher, with robots handling 65 percent of item picking.

Toyota takes steps toward self-driving cars

Although Japan has been a leader in factory robots for many decades, particularly in the automotive industry, the nation has so far made relatively little impact in the autonomous vehicle field, at least when compared to U.S. and European automakers.

U.S. research into autonomous vehicles has been spurred on by support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In Europe, the EU has funded a variety of self-driving vehicle projects.

Now supported by the Abe government, Japanese automakers are beginning to take autonomous vehicle research much more seriously. For instance, Toyota Motor Corp. recently announced that it would invest $50 million over the next five years to establish research centers with both Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on AI and autonomous driving technologies.

“We will initially focus on the acceleration of intelligent vehicle technology, with the immediate goal of helping eliminate traffic casualties and the ultimate goal of helping improve quality of life through enhanced mobility and robotics,” said Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s head of research and development.

In October, Toyota announced plans to roll out technology that will allow its vehicles to autonomously navigate limited-access roadways. Dubbed “Highway Teammate” and set to go into production by 2020, the system will enable vehicles to change lanes, merge with traffic, and pass slower cars and trucks.

Toyota’s new projects are being directed by an American, Gill Pratt, who formerly ran DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, a competition designed to foster the development of robotics to assist emergency responders in disaster situations.

METI looks forward

As Japan increasingly turns to robots to revitalize its economy, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is taking steps to ensure that the nation’s various robotics projects don’t fall victim to the so-called Galapagos Syndrome — a technological phenomenon in which Japanese firms see their electronic devices thrive in the domestic market while foreign markets never emerge.

To help avoid such a possibility, METI is urging robot developers to strictly adhere to global preferences and standards, such as the specifications set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Meanwhile, the government is hoping that Japan will set an example for other countries, showing the robots can be successfully integrated into virtually every business and lifestyle setting, leading to greater productivity, personal convenience and economic prosperity.

Olympic aspirations

Numerous government and business leaders are eagerly anticipating the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, planning to use the events to showcase the nation’s vision of a futuristic society that fully embraces robotic technologies.

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Preparations are already underway. The government?s updated economic strategy, released last June, calls for robot travel guides to be stationed at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, as well as at Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

Haneda Airport is also the testing the HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb), an exoskeleton to help workers lift heavy loads with minimal strain.

In addition, the strategy also describes the use of a multilingual audio translation system at tourist information centers and public transportation facilities, as well as the deployment of autonomous taxis to carry visitors between Olympic sites and other popular venues.

Will a robot carry the Olympic torch for Japan? At least symbolically, that’s already a given.