Japanese Robots: Yaskawa Electric, Traditionally Industrial, Goes Consumer Assistive
What with the card dealing, cooking, and golfing, Yaskawa Electric’s heavily YouTubed Motoman industrial robots have plenty of name, and now, with a pair of robo-rehab machines, the company’s taking its Human Assist agenda public; another player joins Japan’s assistive robotics gold rush.
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Japan and Assistive Robotics: Marching Toward Symbiosis
Setting - Part I: The first half of the context here is Japan's rapidly aging society, dwindling labor force, and distaste for large-scale immigration. In sum, these effectively guarantee a stark numerical incongruence between predicted labor needs and the projected labor pool, i.e., Japan’s service-based domestic economy is going to need robotic labor - not only because robots are awesome, but because there simply won’t be enough humans to do what needs done.
Setting - Part II: In contemporary sociology, it’s a kind of truism that populations in comprehensively civilized nations will eventually peak, and then steadily, if not precipitously, decline and/or stabilize. Japan happens to be at the front of the line; two post-war generations of baby boomers are soon to pass, and fertility rates are far below basic replacement levels (more on that). Since advanced market capitalism does not appreciate losing customers, one contingency Japan’s pursuing is the pioneering and marketing of assistive robotics here at home, which will in turn give a healthy lead in the international market, and thereby help keep the economic boat afloat. Japan’s already very well-positioned, and is quite literally setting the standard for assistive robotics around the world.
Yaskawa Slides into the Assistive Robotics Market
Ninety-eight year-old Yaskawa Electric, based in the palpably industrial yet super-green port city of Kitakyushu, being very hip to the demographic and economic situation laid out above, is working toward developing and deploying a lot more than servos & assembly line automatons. They’ve had assistive robotics projects in their sight for some time; in fact, Yaskawa’s Roadmap 2015, a broad mission statement of “Here’s where we wanna be when we hit the 100-year anniversary,” incorporates a full-on Robotics Human Assist division.
“...We are pressing ahead with the development of next-generation service robots, starting with the SmartPal, on the assumption that robots will coexist and collaborate with human beings in the society of the future. On the other hand, we are also working to further accelerate the rapid expansion of the service robot market by going ahead and placing existing industrial robots in the service field first...”
Making good toward their assistive robotics goals, Yaskawa’s preparing to drop two new assistive/rehab robots into the market. These initial offerings would be more accurately characterized as robotic devices than stand-alone robots, because like, if you press the “On” button and set these things down on the floor, at best they’d just flop around and do nothing (contrast to a roomba, a proper robot; should make sense). These devices do have a programmable intelligence, however, so while they won’t autonomously hunt down the disabled or infirm and force rehab upon them (anybody else smell a screenplay right there?), they do have a measure of reactive, automated interaction with users.
Ankle Walking Assist Device (above left) - Projected Availability: 2015
Yes, ”Ankle Walking Assist Device,” an unavoidably bad translation, is all we’ve really got to work with (roboticists rarely have night jobs in marketing). This exoskeletal-looking ankle brace thingy was developed in cooperation with the Tokyo-based Shibaura Institute of Technology and Hiroshima University’s Space Bio Laboratories.
Here, as function a number of exoskeletal systems, sensors in the sole of the boot know when the heel hits the ground and the robotics kick in to give the stride just the boost it needs to maintain forward momentum throughout the entire leg. The system is intended to be easily adjustable and provide a high level of assistance while maintaining a minimal, non-restrictive presence on the body. Yaskawa expects that the robotic moonboot will eventually be indicated for a wide range of mobility impairments, with special consideration for Japan’s estimated 300,000 yearly stroke victims.
Leg Rehabilitation Robot (above right) - Projected Availability: Early 2014
The second entry, the “Leg Rehabilitation Robot,” is based on a 2005 collaborative project with Kyushu University Hospital. Originally codenamed “TEM LX2 TypeD,” at the time the concept didn’t do much more than provide further empirical evidence that hardcore sciencey people shouldn’t be allowed to name things.
Yaskawa’s busy updating the robotic rehab machine, and as shown in the illustration, it's the kind of device that comes to you; roll it up next to a hospital bed, clamp its leg-shaped jaws onto a patient, and thusly is provided variable, natural movement-based resistance therapy. It seems simple, but it’s really quite novel. Many patients would really benefit from leg exercise, yet totally miss out because they remain too weak to actually stand. Done and done.
Diversifying into Assistive Robotics - Now That’s Got Legs
Ah, ha, ha... haaaa. Okay, shameless pun train aside, this is a clever way for Yaskawa to maintain growth in their robotics divisions. See, there’s a certain amount of evidence, particularly numbers from the International Federation of Robotics, indicating that the domestic consumption of industrial robots has hit cruising speed, i.e., the market has matured, and about as many traditional industrial robots as the Japanese market can bear are being borne. Until those humanoid industrial robots, some of which are are made by Yaskawa, until they really ramp up, growth will be minimal.
So, good on Yaskawa for taking their tech in other directions - they're well ahead of their domestic peers Kawasaki, Kawada, and FANUC. That being said, however, they'd better hit it pretty hard, because the two products above, both admirable efforts, are relatively new kids on the assistive robotics block.
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Images: MyNavi; Yaskawa Electric; AkihabaraNews.com