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October-December 1997

Japan's Advanced Robots

Robots fall into two broad categories. The first type is industrial robots, which are equipped with great strength and special skills. These robots build things and perform tasks that help factories run smoothly. Robots that build cars in automobile factories are a well-known example. The second type of robots help us in our everyday lives. Robots of this type are being used widely in Japan these days, helping people out in many areas--in hospitals and clinics, at home, and in schools.

Recently, Professor Tomomasa Sato and others at the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology developed a "robotic room." This room is a robot in itself, designed to help the people inside. It has 10 video cameras on its ceiling and walls, pressure sensors on the bed and floor, robot arms, and nine computers that run the whole system. These cameras and sensors allow doctors to monitor a patient's pulse, respiration, and other vital signs 24 hours a day. The robotic arm lifts and carries things needed by patients and nurses, and throws empty cans and other refuse into the trash bin.

In the future, we may have robots in our homes to help out with the chores. Many people think these robots should look and move like human beings. At Honda Motor Company, engineers have developed a robot that has two arms and two legs and can walk by itself, just like a human. This robot can walk freely by checking the condition of the surface it walks on, and use its arms to perform various tasks. Known as the Prototype 2, the robot is 180 centimeters tall and weighs 210 kilograms. It not only walks around flat places but goes up and down stairs as well. It can also perform simple tasks like pushing a cart or tightening bolts.

Not too far in the future, robots that look like sci-fi movie characters may be lending us a hand in our everyday tasks.

Photos: (Top) A robot arm aids a patient in the robotic room (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun); (above) the Prototype 2 can walk around like a human being (Honda Motor Company).