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Domestic Robots No Longer Confined to Science Fiction (April 14, 2003)

Wakamaru, a humanoid robot designed to help the elderly and others living alone. (Jiji)
In Osamu Tezuka's anime (animated film) series Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), Atom, the robot protagonist, is born in 2003. In the real 2003, meanwhile, robots that take care of household chores or watch the home while residents are away are appearing one after another. A robot that autonomously vacuums the floor is already on the market, and electronics makers are preparing to release more high-performance products. In addition, the development of robots that can assist people with everyday activities - something that holds promise in an aging society - is continuing, and some makers have released prototypes with a view to putting new products on the market in the spring of 2004. Consumers are waiting and hoping for robots that are intelligent, powerful, and affordable, and an age in which robots are a part of everyday life may be just around the corner.

Vacuuming and Security Robots Already Available
Sanyo Electric Co. and a venture company called Tmsuk have teamed up to develop a "watchdog" robot called Banryu that walks on four legs and is equipped with a camera and other sensors. By way of mobile phone, a user away from home can move Banryu by remote control and look around the house through the camera in its head. The robot is also equipped with sensors that can detect anomalous rises in temperature and burnt odors, and it can send a message to the user's mobile phone in the event of an emergency. At a cost of ¥1.98 million ($16,500 at ¥120 to the dollar), Banryu is not cheap, but the companies involved have received a flood of inquiries since they started taking advance orders in December 2002. Banryu will go on sale to the general public in the second half of 2003.

In addition, Fujitsu Laboratories has developed a robot called Maron-1 that can monitor homes and operate household appliances by mobile-phone command while the owner is away from home. It is already being sold in limited numbers to corporations, and Fujitsu plans to offer the product to the general public for about ¥200,000 ($1,666) in the fall of 2003. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. also plans to put on the market in a few years a robot named N-Robo capable of cleaning a home. N-Robo, which is currently still in the development stage, has a sensor that allows it to quickly recognize the shape of a room and any objects in it. The robot can then vaccum the room independently without bumping into anything.

One very powerful vacuuming robot currently on sale is Trilobite, which was developed by the European firm Electrolux and has been sold in Japan by Toshiba Corp. since October 2002. Although the robot may seem a bit expensive at ¥280,000 ($2,333), its intelligent functions make it worth the money. Nearly 700 units were sold in Japan in the first two months, and many inquiries have come from the elderly.

Consumers Hope for Intelligent, Powerful, and Affordable Robots
Moves toward developing robots that specialize in supporting the everyday lives of seniors are also picking up speed. In February 2003 Mitsubishi Heavy Industries unveiled the prototype of a humanoid robot called Wakamaru, which it is developing for elderly people and others living alone. The 1-meter-tall robot relies on wheels to move about. It has a fish-eye lens on its head, with which it determines its location, and it uses a sensor to calculate the distance between itself and people and objects while moving about the house. It runs on a battery, and when its power runs low, it returns to the recharging unit on its own.

Wakamaru is capable of recognizing the faces of up to 10 different people. It also has the ability to recognize about 10,000 words and can make simple everyday conversation. It will alert the owner by phone or e-mail if it detects a loud noise or senses a moving object while the owner is away. It can also contact family members living elsewhere when the owner's activity is out of the ordinary, such as the person spending a very long time in the bath or not responding when spoken to.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries expects there to be demand for about 10,000 units of this robot annually, mainly among people with health concerns and seniors who live alone. The company plans to put the robot on the market in April 2004 with a price tag of slightly more than ¥1 million ($8,333).

Other efforts in Japan to create humanoid robots include the latest version of Honda's Asimo, which is able to accurately understand and respond to a range of human motions, and joint projects involving academia, the government, and such corporations as Kawasaki Heavy Industries that aim to develop robots capable of working with or in the place of human beings, such as by assisting caregivers or performing rescue operations.

So what are consumers looking for in a robot? According to a survey of 800 people conducted last December by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the roles most desired of a robot were "housesitting and guarding" (66%) and "assisting with household chores, such as cleaning" (63%). As for the abilities it should have, the most popular answers were "assisting with physical labor" (61%), "operating appliances by remote control" (57%), and "intelligence" (50%). But even with all they expect from a robot, consumers still want it to be cheap. A total of 58% of respondents indicated that they would pay no more than ¥100,000 ($833) for a robot that performs housesitting and guard duties, and 52% said they would pay no more than that for a robot that helped with household chores. In order for robots to become common in homes, manufacturers will have to work hard to bring costs down.

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Related Web Sites
Osamu Tezuka
Fujitsu Laboratories
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.
Toshiba Corp.
"Asimo" in Honda

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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