'Welfare robots' to ease burden in greying Japan

Jul 29, 2010 by Miwa Suzuki
A robotic wheelchair, developed by Saitama University's professor Yoshinori Kobayashi, follows or moves beside a walking person automatically during a demonstration at the Robotech exhibition in Tokyo. Robotic wheelchairs, mechanical arms and humanoid waiters are among the cutting-edge inventions on show at a robotics fair in Japan, a country whose population is ageing rapidly.

Robotic wheelchairs, mechanical arms and humanoid waiters are among the cutting-edge inventions on show at a robotics fair in Japan, a country whose population is ageing rapidly.

To ease the burden in a nation with one of the world's highest life expectancies, engineers have come up with technologies to make life easier for the elderly and disabled, and their caregivers.

A new robot wheelchair developed at Saitama University near Tokyo doesn't need to be propelled manually by the user or pushed by a caregiver but can instead automatically move besides a walking person.

"Imagine if you enter a store having somebody push your wheelchair," said one of the researchers, Yoshinori Kobayashi, assistant professor for information science and technology at the university.

"Your relationship with him or her may not look equal to a store clerk or onlookers. You would fail to be treated as an independent person."

The wheelchair is fitted with a camera and sensors that detect both the caregiver and obstacles ahead to safely guide the vehicle, which can also be stopped or overridden with a by the person in the wheelchair.

Kobayashi, pointing at a shortage of caregivers in , said the team is working on a system that would allow more than one automated wheelchair to follow a at the same time.

Another innovation to make life easier for the disabled is the "RAPUDA" , a "portable " being developed by Woo-Keun Yoon of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

Patients who are largely paralysed but can move some part of their body, such as a fingertip, a toe, or their neck, will be able to control the arm and utilise its reach and strength.

The arm can be attached to wheelchairs, tables and other objects and extended to up to one metre (three feet) to pick up objects, helping improve quality of life for the disabled, said Yoon.

"It's important that you can have tea when you want to, or pick up what you like in a shop," Yoon said. "Otherwise you have to ask people many times... and end up saying 'thank you' many times and exhausting yourself."

Another invention from Saitama University, still in the development phase, is a robot that is being designed to serve its human masters and predict their wishes by literally reading their faces.

With its female appearance and dressed, manga-cartoon-style, in a French maid uniform, the humanoid on display at the fair can move about with the help of a Segway people mover hidden under its full-length skirt.

Sensors and software inside the machine are designed to detect when a human being is looking at it and to respond by, for example, bringing the person a drink, said Kobayashi, adding that the robot-maid could one day work in homes for the elderly and restaurants.

Learning about the complexities of human behaviour will be a challenge, said Kobayashi, adding: "Humanoids need to learn how they should behave so as not to leave one particular person in a group unattended."

Japanese researchers have come up with other "welfare robot" devices in recent years, including the "YURINA", made by Japan Logic Machine, a wheeled robot that can lift bed-ridden people with its arms.

After receiving instructions on a touch panel embedded in the robot's head, it can lift a patient's legs to change their diapers, or place them in a hammock to carry them safely for a bath.

"Elderly care requires a lot of heavy physical work," said marketing official Yoshitaka Takata. "This can be a lot of help."

Japanese people are living longer than ever, with the average life expectancy now a world-record 86.44 years for women and 79.59 years for men, the health and welfare ministry said Monday.

Explore further: Robots and dinosaurs as Japan holds 'Niconico' offline gala

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User comments : 9

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not rated yet Jul 29, 2010
The robot-revolution is coming to society. Surtainly in Japan, they will takeover household tasks that older people can do anymore because of there age. They will help handicapt people on many things to. The future is very promising!
5 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2010
Now all we need is a robot that can teach us how to spell correctly! ;)
1 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2010
It's actually very sad. We can't take care of you. Here you go, take a robot. It will keep you some company.
not rated yet Jul 30, 2010
these are great , very good to see helpful practical robots getting closer to home.

video of RAPUDA
Robotic Arm for Persons with Upper-limb DisAbilities :

and one robot for assistance i think is very promising that was demoed 2008 Twendy-One:

SmartK8 - i don't understand your logic , each of these robots will help to empower people who are without ability otherwise to live freely and independently if they wish and continue doing what they do best. this both relieves the person of feeling shame and or the feeling of people taking pity on them while freeing up caregivers to help those critically injured or research medical and bio-mech technologies. as these types of robotic assistance grows more elderly and otherwise disabled people will have the ability to fully interact with others and the environment on the same level as everyone else so i wouldn't say it is sad at all.
not rated yet Jul 30, 2010
I've no problem with better tools to help us. I'm against giving up the emotional responsibility. I don't want to spend my retirement with an assigned robot care-taker. While the society feels like I'm OK that way. As in: "I feel lonely, SX-13" "Request not recognized!" :)
not rated yet Aug 01, 2010
Now all we need is a robot that can teach us how to spell correctly! ;)

Well its pretty much the spell checkers that are found in most web browsers. It beats me why people don't use them.
not rated yet Aug 05, 2010
Much of the humanoid robotics coming out of Japan are impractical. The elderly need humans as care-givers, people who can detect when an elderly person is feeling bad, feeling lonely, is in pain or experiencing discomfort. Often times, patients will not say when they are experiencing problems, or don't want help - even when it's needed. Human care-givers can manage these rather human traits, whereas humanoid robots are simply appliances that do not share the human experience. It is sad to see that Japan is delegating this critically human responsibility to inadequate machines. So much for Japanese respecting elders.
not rated yet Aug 05, 2010
According to the article: "The wheelchair is fitted with a camera and sensors that detect both the caregiver and obstacles ahead to safely guide the vehicle, which can also be stopped or overridden with a joystick by the person in the wheelchair."

Why not simply let the person in the wheelchair control the chair with the joystick? Why does it need to follow a caregiver automatically? Empowering the patient with full control over the chair eliminates the dependency on the caregiver and achieves the independence the researchers are seeking.
not rated yet Aug 13, 2010
Why not simply let the person in the wheelchair control the chair ? It's an 'Old Dog, New Tricks' problem: We have scars on doors, door-frames, walls and shins from an elderly relative's efforts to master an electric wheelchair. Our cats soon learned to flee its whine...

One advantage of robotic aids is they empower the user on multiple levels. Some-one who would find human carers demeaning and embarassing need have no issues with automation. Also, you have the mentally able whose body has failed them. They may be sharp as nails, but are limited to minimal exertion: Again, robotics empowers them...

FWIW, I could have done with a robot to handle my mother-in-law towards the end. Sadly, her wits regressed to child-like-- When baulked, she'd shriek and bite...

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