Robot skycaps and back-saving exoskeletons arrive at Japan airport

In preparation for the 2020 Olympics, officials at Tokyo's Haneda airport are giving robots from Cyberdyne, Inc., some on-the-job training.

Robots from Japanese company Cyberdyne, Inc., (no relation to the doomsday-heralding creator of Skynet) will soon be seen in passenger terminals at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The robots are part of a trial aimed at improving the ergonomic experience of employees and reducing strains and repetitive stress injuries associated with hoisting and carrying heavy luggage all day.

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Japan is a hotbed for robotics innovation. About a quarter of its population is over 65, the highest percentage among top industrialized nations, according to Bloomberg.com. There is some urgency, then, to develop robotic systems to augment the labor force. In addition to smarter and more versatile industrial robots, there is increasing interest in systems that can navigate semi-structured and unstructured environments like shops and airports.

The Japanese government has been keen to fund initiatives to encourage development of robotics and related technology categories, and, in a move Arthur Koestler might have predicted, it recently announced a goal of showcasing its robotics innovation at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The Haneda program draws on funds alloted toward that end.

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There are 11 total robots in the pilot program, and they fall into three categories. The most alien-seeming are likely to be the iterations of the company's Hybrid Assistive Limb (or HAL ... no relation to the sentient gestalt system that went berserk and tried to kill Dave). The exoskeleton suits work by detecting electric signals from the wearer's brain.

"At airports, luggage is typically large, and people engaged in loading and unloading it put a big stress on their backs, giving them back pain," Cyberdyne CEO Yoshiyuki Sankai told the Japan Times. "HAL can protect their backs by providing assisting power." (See pictures of eight awesome exoskeletons)

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One version of the suit offers lumbar support and power assistance and calls to mind a similar device from Swiss company Noonee that's currently getting a trial in an Audi plant.

The other robots look more like R2D2 derivatives. The cylindrical bots will zip around cleaning floors and carrying luggage for passengers.

For its participation Cyberdyne gets a rigorous testbed for its products, great PR, and a curiously effective strategy for international exposure: put the robots to work for travelers coming in from abroad. "Can I get your luggage, Dave?"