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  • 10.19.12

This Week In Bots: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Robot Innovations

Sakura translates to “cherry blossoms,” but an alternate meaning could be: badass machines.

This Week In Bots: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Robot Innovations
A newly evolved HAL exoskeleton may help workers clean up the Daiichi reactor mess.

Bot Vid: Emotional Iuro

As mentioned over at the Automaton blog, one of the more unusual robots that recently got shown at the IROS robot convention was Iuro, or the Interactive Urban Robot. A product of Accrea Engineering, the robot is designed to cope with some of the trickier pavement obstacles in an urban environment thanks to shock-absorbing wheels and good laser terrain detection. But since the robot is intended to interact with people and help advance robotics through symbolic navigation (such as “turn left at the corner”) he’s equipped with a movable face. This is his most endearing quality, but it’s also a hint at how robots will emote to relate to us in the near future.

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Bot Vid: Autom, The Life Coach

The Autom project has been in development for quite a while now, but the diminutive robot is in the news this week because she’s getting a worldwide distribution deal courtesy of PCH International. Autom is part life coach, part diet assistant and it’s intended to assist people trying to keep healthy. To this end the robot is quite smart, despite its simple looks, and can adapt to each user’s needs as it learns them over time. It’s even been the subject of a study that showed users kept to a diet more with the robot’s help and motivation versus using a more traditional diet log. The machine will cost $200 and $19 a month for a year. [Autom hasn’t changed much since this promotional video was released.]

Bot Vid: Rolling Romotive

Romotive ran such a successful Kickstarter campaign last year to design and build a smartphone-carrying telepresence robot that the company has returned to the crowdsourcing site with a whole new effort and a second-generation robot. Bigger, faster and more capable than the first generation machine, the new Romotive will–if the funding to build the robot and its SDK is successful–be able to do two-way telepresence chats, and implement computer vision, facial recognition, and autonomous navigation.

Bot News

Nissan’s “robot” control cars. Nissan’s been developing its smart robot car tech for some time now, but it’s reached an important milestone: The Japanese carmaker says it’ll have cars on the market inside 12 months that can seize control of the vehicle in case of emergency and help avoid obstacles or collisions. The system uses advanced sensors in front of the car and a fully “drive by wire” system that, like the similarly named tech in modern airliners, places a computer between the driver’s input commands and the wheels and brakes.

Northrop Grumman’s Titus. A Northrop Grumman subsidiary company, Remotec Inc., has just revealed its latest robot designed to assist first responders in emergency situations. Titus is a smallish 27 inches in length and just 23 inches high and its size and light weight of just 125 pounds are a boon when the robot is crawling into confined spaces in, for example, a building collapsed by an earthquake. It’s also speedy and has interchangeable parts so it can be optimized for different missions.

Bot Futures: Lessons From Fukushima

Japan is often thought of as one of the most pro-robot places in the world, and the technology has certainly been useful in the aftermath of the earthquake-tsunami disaster that devastated great swathes of the country. In particular, robots have been helpful in entering parts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility that are too dangerous for humans to attempt to visit yet.

This week a newly developed machine was shown to the press, intended to follow its older compatriots (who recently won an award for their achievements) into the radioactive facilities in the decimated reactor buildings. Sakura is smaller than the earlier robot Quince, and can thus squeeze into smaller access spaces in the basement area below the reactors. It’s so maneuverable it can scuttle up and down stairs that are up to 52-degrees sloped and tackle narrow pathways and difficult terrain like metal gratings.

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It’s equipped with a high-definition camera as well as sound recording capabilities, and can thus relay vital data to its remote operator about the status inside Fukushima. Hopefully its camera and sound skills will help it work out if radioactive contaminated water is leaking through the bottom of the reactor containment vessel.

In a considerable show of speed, the Chiba Institute of Technology has been working on the robot since February in 2012. It’s now due to go through a month of endurance testing before it’s tweaked and then sent into the danger zone.

Sakura is an amazing example of how engineers and scientists can, under the right circumstances, innovate robot technology to help manage disasters in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible beforehand. But Japan’s embrace of robot tech is also exemplified in another Chiba-based innovation.

The HAL exoskeleton, originally developed as a robotized assistance suit for people with reduced mobility, has now been expanded upon. The new HAL has innovations like tungsten shielding for reducing exposure to radiation and an internal cooling system to prevent its wearer from suffering heatstroke. It’s also more or less self-supporting, so it holds up its own weight and doesn’t burden its wearer any more than necessary, and measures and reports on human vital signs like heart rate and body temperature as well as accelerations.

Equipped with the right tools it can help repair pipes and other structures in places like Fukushima, and because it can multiply the human wearer’s lifting power it could help clear debris. For a demonstration of this sort of system, Tokyo University has been designing a lifting exoskeleton that uses a relatively simple set of pneumatic artificial muscles instead of complex electronic actuators.

It weighs just 9 kilos itself, but can help the wearer lift up to 50 kilos in load with ease.

In the future, it’s mooted that Japan’s emergency crews may wear this sort of gear when attending accidents or disasters. In certain situations it’s obvious how useful an exoskeleton may be–for example in moving debris inside a damaged building or even helping extract patients from inside cars involved in a crash. This tech is also likely to expand quickly beyond Japan’s borders the moment it proves useful in saving people’s lives. Which means your friendly fireman of tomorrow may be sporting a robosuit that turns him into a fire-cyborg…at least during work hours.

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Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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