May 24, 2011      

How would you feel if you woke up at home or in a hospital and the first thing you saw was a hulking robot? You might think you were having a nightmare-unless you were in Japan, that is.

Confronted with a rapidly aging society and a shrinking workforce, the Japanese are pushing ahead with sophisticated robots that can help care for their elderly as well as disabled people. One of the most remarkable of these robotics projects is RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance), a humanoid robot with a teddy-bear face and seemingly gentle disposition. RIBA may look like it belongs in a playground, but it packs some serious technology and mechanical muscle. 

Announced in 2009 and still in the prototype stage, RIBA is being developed by RIKEN-TRI Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research (RTC), as a joint project based in Nagoya that involves state-funded RIKEN, one of Japan’s premier scientific research centers, and Tokai Rubber Industries Ltd., a rubber parts maker based in nearby Komaki.

Standing about 4½ feet tall and weighing roughly 400 pounds, RIBA appears rather imposing. Yet it moves delicately, if slowly, on its omnidirectional, four-wheeled base. Lifting patients out of bed and depositing them in a wheelchair is RIBA’s most impressive feature. Indeed, RIBA is billed as the first robot that can pick people up from beds and wheelchairs or set them down, and it does this with all the gentleness of a Florence Nightingale.

This skill is meant to alleviate one of the most exhausting chores performed by those caring for people who cannot move around unaided. To accomplish it, RIBA possesses two powerful multijointed arms, each with seven degrees of freedom. Together, the arms can hoist a combined 134 pounds. The joints are powerful, with a high degree of torque so the robot does not inadvertently drop a patient. By design, the joints give a little when a weight is placed upon them, just like a human joint would, to make the experience of being carried more comfortable. As it stands now, the lifting capacity would not pass muster in the United States, but it suffices for Japan, where seniors tend to be slimmer.

A Hands-On Interface
Along with two CCD cameras for face recognition and two microphones for voice recognition and sound localization, RIBA also comes equipped with a battery of sensors. These are mostly tactile in nature, with some 500 sensing elements embedded in its arms and chest that are tasked with measuring position and pressure.

Other tactile sensors located in the upper arms can be used to direct the robot. RIBA works with a human operator who guides the robot through its lifting motions by nudging its arms and directing it to the patient. In effect, RIBA is very much a manually controlled machine, though it can follow its human operator with its cameras and microphones. It mainly does the heavy lifting, and patients also have to help out by grasping the bear’s head for stability when they are being moved.

“The biggest hardware and software challenges are ensuring RIBA’s load capacity can accommodate a person; the robot being able to operate in an unstructured environment and handle people of different shapes; and ensuring safety at all times,” says Toshiharu Mukai, leader of the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team at RTC. Ongoing improvements to the robot are focused on those three aspects instead of things such as its nickel-metal hydride battery life, which is currently a mere one hour. The presence of a human operator helps ensure safety, as does RIBA’s soft, lightweight urethane foam exterior for patient comfort, developed by Tokai Rubber Industries. Another safety feature is a virtual RIBA program in which a simulated version of the robot goes through the motions of lifting a patient in a 3D environment to develop safeguards for collisions and proper motion planning. 

“If RIBA were to be treated as a medical device under Japanese law, there would be many regulations in play, making things very difficult,” says Mukai. “I think it’s best not to approach it that way [as a medical device]. Safety issues are extremely important, so we are now considering what standards RIBA would have to meet before commercialization.”

Great Expectations
RIBA is the successor to RI-MAN, a similar human-lifting robot developed at RIKEN’s Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center in 2006. Conceived of four years earlier, it could see, hear, and smell its environment, and came equipped with 320 pressure points on its arms and chest to accurately handle patients (it could only lift a maximum of 80 pounds). A motion-capture system was used to track the joint positions of nurses when they lifted patients; these were used to guide RI-MAN’s motions. RI-MAN could also respond to voice commands to pick up specific people, and didn’t have to be manually guided like RIBA, which inherited its sensor and information processing know-how. RIKEN spun off the technology in 2007, setting up RTC and getting Tokai Rubber to take on nearly all funding for the project.

Aside from its cute appearance, RIBA seems more endearing when it talks, shakes hands, and bows. It will begin interacting with a patient by introducing itself and saying, “Please be kind to me,” a standard Japanese formality. RIBA’s overall design is typical of humanoid robots in Japan, which tend to be cartoonish and friendly. Due to the many positive portrayals of robots in Japanese science-fiction cartoons and comics, as well as the culture’s deep-rooted respect for tools and machines, Japan has been called the “robot kingdom,” a land where robots are expected to help people in their everyday lives.

While Japanese engineers succeeded spectacularly in taking a U.S. invention-the industrial robot-and adapting it to myriad factory automation applications, they have had few successes with commercial robots. There have been dozens of beautifully designed and engineered prototype robots like Honda’s ASIMO, but there is no Japanese equivalent to Massachusetts-based iRobot with its large military contracts and highly successful line of Roomba cleaning robots. Indeed, notable Japanese commercial robots such as Sony’s Aibo robot dog and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Wakamaru communication robot have been only moderate successes to downright failures; both were withdrawn from the market.

A Bear Market?
Government officials are hoping that care robots like RIBA will fare better. Japan’s population has been in decline since 2007, and its low birthrate and aversion to immigration mean there aren’t enough younger Japanese to care for their elders. More than 40 percent of the population will fall into the senior citizens’ classification by 2055. The Japanese caregiving technology market is already worth an estimated $1 billion annually. Robots, however, still have to prove themselves practical for everyday applications and not just costly engineering projects; sales of Secom’s My Spoon, an automated feeding device, have been lackluster due to its hefty $4,800 price tag. Similarly, the therapeutic seal robot Paro, developed for some $9 million to comfort people with dementia, costs $2,800. Only a few thousand of these have been sold.

For the time being Mukai isn’t concerned with such grim financial results. “RIBA is still under development, and the next phase is testing at a nursing facility. Based on those results, Tokai Rubber Industries will decide on a marketing plan, beginning with Japan,” he says. At this point, RTC isn’t looking for any new partners to develop the robot, as it plans to work with Tokai Rubber, its affiliate firms, and nursing facilities. When it announced RIBA in 2009, RTC had a timeline of commercializing it within five years.

How much will RIBA cost? “The price is undecided, but if it isn’t around the price of a car, it’s thought that we won’t be able to sell it,” Mukai says. Whether Japan’s nursing homes will be willing to fork out tens of thousands of dollars for lifting robots remains to be seen. But with nearly half a million Japanese on waiting lists for nursing homes, some of whom will require intensive care, there seems to be a ready market for RTC’s big robot bear.