Robots: Our plastic pals who are fun to be with?

Japan is still the clear leader in robot manufacture, especially when it comes to humanoid forms which are increasingly being seen as potential home helpers for an ageing population

Robots have been in the news recently — walking robots, dancing robots, even cycling robots — and it has to be admitted that the images of small humanoid robots performing mundane tasks makes good and easy content for the newspapers and TV. Which is one of the reasons why Japanese companies, such as Toyota, Mitsubishi and Honda, have generously funded the research labs that have built and designed them, after all, robots are a good way of promoting technology companies.

But there are other much more serious reasons why companies in Japan are investing so much in robot technology and why they are, according to some observers, now a decade ahead of any other country in robotics research.

Robotics has long been used by industry as a means of improving factory quality, performance and efficiency, particularly in countries like Japan. For at least three decades robots have been a key technology in engineering industries, especially the automotive and electronics industries, and have been responsible for both increasing industrial productivity and making manufacturing more competitive, flexible and responsive to changing markets.

A part of everyday life
Now after decades of media hype and subsequent disappointment, robots are at last moving out of the factory and into the wider world. A move that promises to dramatically expand the size of the robotics industry and at the same time bring social and economic benefits to a much greater number of peoples' lives. "In the same way that mobile phones and laptops have changed our daily lives, robots are poised to become, within the next decade, a part of everyday life," says Geoff Pegman of UK based robotics company R.U.Robots. "Machines incorporating robot technology are increasingly finding their way into our homes, into hospitals and other public spaces, in the form of self-navigating vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, window washers, toys, or surgical robots."

Advances in robot technology mean that robots will soon be capable of performing more challenging tasks though, in professional markets, in the home or at leisure. They will be operating in field areas, for example forestry, agriculture, cleaning, mining, freight transport and demolition. New robot systems will also enable a greater proportion of the population to live independently in their homes by providing personal assistance to the elderly and the infirm and adding further convenience to our daily life by helping to carrying out everyday chores.

These new types of robots are known as 'service robots'. The market for such robots is barely five years old and the devices being sold today are still simple and rudimentary, yet the demand for them is currently growing at over 400 percent each year. In Europe alone some 220 companies, over 70 percent of which are new start-ups, now develop, make and distribute service robots — companies that are forming the basis of a new innovation driven, high value-added industry.

Service robots can assist around the home

Service robots can assist around the home

Service robots
By end of 2003 some 21,000 service robots were used in professional applications worldwide, but on top of this there were more than 1.3 million service robots sold for personal and private use. These included such diverse devices as lawnmowers, autonomous vacuum cleaners, and robot toys. Autonomous vacuum cleaners alone account for sales of more than 600,000 units per annum.

Both manufacturers and customers increasingly see service robots as a way in which people in the developed world can maximize...

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...their free time, thereby allowing them to pursue 'quality activities' as opposed to doing domestic chores.

Service robots are also being developed to entertain us in the form of sophisticated toys. Sony has sold more than 200,000 units of their world famous dog robot, AIBO, and the UN annual World Robotics Report predicts there will be almost 2.5 million entertainment and "leisure" robots in use by the end of 2007.

Faced with an aging population, the Japanese see service robots as one way to enable people to continue to lead an active and productive life in their old age, without being a burden to other people.

This is a problem that will be faced by a large part of the industrialised world over the next two decades, including most of Europe. These countries will see a significant growth in the number of people above 65 and the dependency ratio will grow from about 22 percent to more than 45 percent.

The Japanese have promoted humanoid robots as a way of solving the problem of an aging society. One of the first companion robots to come onto the market is a 1m-tall humanoid home help robot, called Wakamaru. Produced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries it can recognise up to 10 different faces, understands 10,000 words and is being marketed as a mechanical house-sitter and secretary.

Japanese companies like Mitsubishi see a big market for robots like Wakamaru, an opinion that was endorsed last year in the UN annual World Robotics report, which said that by the end of 2007, 4.1 million robots would be doing jobs in homes around the world.

The existence of this potentially large market for domestic humanoid robots was, however, probably not the prime reason why Japanese companies have invested heavily in building humanoid robots. The fact that most have been built and designed by car manufacturers, such as Honda and Toyota, is because they showcase the company's expertise in robotics, an important part of automobile manufacturing.

Toyota's rolling robot

Toyota's rolling robot

Honda and Toyota
"The Japanese development of service robots is really a technology demonstrator, it allows them to develop the technologies that are used in other things," says Ken Young, chairman of British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) and director of the Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Warwick.

Making an autonomous humanoid robot that can walk, dance or ride a bicycle is an extremely complex engineering task and pushes the skills and knowledge of the designers to the very limit. These may seem simple tasks to us, as humans, because we do them every day, but they require the development of powerful 'muscle' like actuators, all the appropriate sensors and control systems and the sophisticated machine intelligence that is necessary to walk on two legs on uneven ground or climb a flight of steps.

If the engineers and scientists employed by a company can achieve this, then they can also use this knowledge to design advanced robotic manufacturing systems that will allow goods to be produced with minimum...

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...of human input. With a population that is both aging and demanding a higher standard of living that can only come from higher productivity and greater levels of automation, such knowledge is very important to Japanese companies.
Toyota's walking robot, ideal for the elderly

Toyota's walking robot, ideal for the elderly

Climb a flight of steps
The walking and dancing humanoid service robots are also the public face of a thriving and successful Japanese robotics industry that employs thousands and not only supplies robots to enthusiastic Japanese homes and businesses but exports robots for use by manufacturers all around the world. Japan is today the acknowledged centre of the world's robotics industry. They are not only the biggest source of industrial robots, they are also the biggest user and they use them in the widest range of applications.

According to recent statistics published by the UN and the International Federation of Robotics, in 2004 Japan had over 352,200 multipurpose industrial robots installed in its factories and is adding to that number by over 33,200 per annum. These robots are not just being used in the welding and painting lines in car factories, they are being used for all sorts of things, from food manufacturing to horticulture and cleaning to product assembly.

While the US with an installed base of 121,300 robots is well behind Japan, Europe is catching up fast with 266,100, Germany alone accounting for 121,500. Italy is the second biggest robot user in Europe with 53,100, but the UK lags way behind at just 14,600, even fewer than Spain's 22,000.

US well behind
The automotive industry has, of course, been one of the biggest driving forces behind both the development and use of multipurpose industrial robots. They have been used not simply to replace human employees in dangerous occupations, but also to both improve the quality of manufacturing — by improving the precision of operations like spot welding — and to enable more flexible manufacture. In this instance new models can be produced on the same line by simply reprogramming the robots as opposed to complete retooling.

In countries like France and Spain, the automotive industry accounts for about 65 percent of the number of installed industrial robots, however, the much wider application of robots in Japan means that there, this figure drops to just 29.9 percent. The only other country that comes close to Japan in the more general purpose usage of robots is Italy with a figure of 37 percent.

According to BARA's Young it is, "the poor state of the automotive industry in the UK over the last 20 years, coupled with a general decline in manufacturing, that is largely responsible for the failure by UK companies to use robots". However, he also felt that it was due to a cultural problem in the UK. "People feel they have to do the work, putting a robot in to do a job seems to go against what we think is right and this cultural factor seems to apply to both workers and management. It is not something that exists in countries like Italy."

Poor state of UK automotive industry
The importance of the robotics industry to Europe has recently been brought to the fore by Ulf Dahlsten, the EU's emerging technologies director in Brussels. Dahlsten has urged EU businesses...

For more, click here... turn their robotics research into viable products much more quickly and to push robots into new market areas. This is seen both as a way of improving productivity in EU companies, necessary if we are to maintain living standards with an aging population and in taking advantage of what the UNECE/IFR report predicts will be, by 2025, a $66bn (£38bn) industry.

However, robot manufacture is already quite a success story in Europe. It is an innovation-driven and export-oriented industry, worth today about €3.1bn (£2.1bn) annually in robots and as much as €10bn in robot components, system integration and other services. This has been gradually established over the last 25 years and now accounts for about 35 percent of the global industry — long established companies are now being joined by an increasing number of start-up companies.

Research into robotics is also very active. It is estimated that about 250 universities and research institutes around the EU are currently working in this area. Research networks such as EURON and professional organisations such as EUnited Robotics are also helping to improve the coordination of European research and innovation-related activities.

€50m annually on robotics
However, although the EU spends around €50m annually on robotics related research, it does not yet have a common platform for its R&D efforts. In Japan, on the other hand, the Japanese Robot Association (JARA) has launched robotics initiatives worth $300m and in Korea, government and industry are in the progress of setting up a 10-year strategic robotics research programme worth $1bn.

The ASIMO humanoid robot from Honda

The ASIMO humanoid robot from Honda

"The difference between the Japanese approach to developing robotics and the European one is," says BARA's Young, "is the fact that they have a product focus, whereas the Europeans, the UK in particular, have a technology focus. The technology focus means that bits are developed without developing the complete system. These bits may be very good but they are useless unless they are assembled into a product". This view is underlined by the fact that both the Korean and Japanese programmes are part of much larger, national roadmaps that are aimed towards gaining a competitive edge in a critical area of technology — an area which both countries see as vital for the future of all their manufacturing industries.

This, says Young, is the problem with the UK. "The trouble is that there is no political commitment to robotics in the UK. The government...

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...does not recognise that we need to keep making things. People need to see high technology as being of great value to the country. The stock market needs to stop taking a short-term view to investment in manufacturing and the media needs to give a more positive perception of technology," he argues.

No political commitment in the UK
However, despite this pessimism, there is some excellent leading-edge research being undertaken in the UK, as well as across Europe. This work is now beginning to be backed up by a growing political commitment, underlined in the recent statements by the EU's director of emerging technologies, Ulf Dahlsten. The governments and private companies should boost robotics by commissioning new products that will help drive the robotics industry forward, he states.

Already the European Commission has said that it will be helping companies such as EADS, BAE Systems and Philips coordinate robotics research. Another example of the EU's political commitment was the October 2005 launch of The European Technology Platform in Robotics (EUROP). EUROP will aim to bring together all the main European industrial and academic robotics stakeholders and public authorities, to develop a common robotics technology platform.

R.U.Robots' Pegman believes that, "EUROP is essential to consolidate European R&D strategy in robotics. It is a requisite for preparing a new generation of robots that would closely collaborate with workers and move out of the factory to conquer a new wave of novel service, security and space application markets".

New generation of robots
The proponents of EUROP, such as Pegman, are promoting a vision of empowering European citizens by using robots that work with rather than away from people and robots that interact — with people, with each other and evolve, learn and adapt their behaviour to their environment and the requirements of the task they are given.

"The growing spread of ubiquitous computing and communication environments will lead to robot technologies becoming the agents of physical action, although it must be emphasised that the functioning of such robots will not be predicated upon the existence of any network," says Rich Walker of UK robotics company Shadow Robots. "Robots will increasingly occupy the same ergonomic space as humans. Moving around, sensing, understanding and acting will become increasingly important as a way of delivering, individually or collectively as a group, novel capabilities, applications and services," he explains.

The aim of the EUROP platform is to unite all the main industrial and academic robotics stakeholders and public authorities around this common vision — where research goals and priorities of industrial relevance, timeframes and action plans on a number of strategically important issues can be agreed upon and relevant actions implemented. Doing so will move the focus of European robotics away from being a purely technological one, towards an application-based focus.