Thu, Dec 03, 2015 - Page 14 News List

Disaster-relief droids light up Tokyo robot exhibition

SLOW AND STEADY:The humanoid robots displayed spacial awareness and the ability to move objects, but still suffer from balance problems on rough terrain


Robitis OP2 miniature humanoid robots, developed by Robotis Co, dance during a demonstration at the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, yesterday. The exhibition is scheduled to run through Saturday.

Photo: Bloomberg

Japan yesterday displayed a pair of two-legged humanoid robots that can operate in harsh conditions as the nation, prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, prepares for its next catastrophe.

Simulating work in a tunnel after an earthquake, two slender robots with tiny heads attached with sensors walked through fake debris to extinguish a fire during a demonstration at the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo.

The four-day event, which opened yesterday, is held once every two years in Japan’s capital.

This year, it is to draw nearly 450 participating organizations — the most since it started about four decades ago. About 57 of the groups come from France, Britain, Russia and South Korea.

This year’s show is focused on robotic equipment for disaster relief, assisting the elderly and their caregivers, and farming.

Disasters are a fact of life for Japan, an archipelago nation facing the “Ring of Fire” — an arc of fault lines that circles the Pacific Basin and is prone to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The two disaster-relief droids were developed in a project under Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Development (NEDO) — a national research organization — that started after a devastating magnitude 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit northern Japan on March 11, 2011.

Unlike in Hollywood movies, where robots can run, jump and fly at high speeds, these droids are the slow and steady type.

While HRP-2 Kai, which is 1.7m tall, walked on a narrow board, 1.88m-tall JAXON — developed by the University of Tokyo — moved forward by bending its back and putting both hands on the floor, judging that the ceiling was too low to move upright.

It then lifted itself up to remove a box and debris to secure a pathway — tasks that could be done even in a risky environment hazardous to humans.

However, humanoid robots are far from perfect, suffering from balance problems on rough terrain, NEDO robot division head Shuji Yumitori said, adding that his organization hopes further improvements would put them in commercial use in as little as five years.

“They will be wonderful robots,” Yumitori said.

Still, Japan — where robots have been developed for decades — does not always excel in global competitions.

In June, Japanese-made robots made the finals of a US disaster-response contest inspired by the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster that followed the earthquake and tsunami.

JAXON’s performance at the event — eventually won by South Korean scientists — proved to be cringe-inducing as the droid tumbled and had to be carried away on a stretcher.

“Our priority is not about whether we win or not,” Yumitori said. “It is about whether we can create something that is useful for human beings.”

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