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Japan to make robots a consumer "must have"

Posted: 08 Apr 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:consumer electronics? robot? pc? robodex? fujitsu?

At the Robodex show this week, Japanese companies unwrapped platforms and supporting technology designed to make robots a mainstream consumer electronics market. Their goal is to grow the robot industry as the PC industry did with abundant, inexpensive, and interoperable components.

"The Japanese economy is stagnant, but it is hot for robots," said Tadatoshi Doi, president of Sony Corp.'s Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories. "We see the robot industry as the first new industry of the 21st century - a Japan-originated industry."

A total of 38 companies, universities and research organizations exhibited 95 robots. Commercial models and prototypes alike were more humanlike, friendlier, and smarter than the robots paraded at last year's Robodex.

Toshiba Corp., in its first Robodex appearance, proposed a new open architecture for robotics and showed a prototype home robot based upon it. A Fujitsu Ltd. subsidiary unveiled a motion control system based on a neural network. And the Kitano Symbiotic System project and Leading Edge Design offered a platform for development of robot components.

"The PC industry grew thanks to abundant, inexpensive, high-performance components," said Takayuki Furuta, group leader of the symbiotic-intelligence group at Kitano, an advanced-technology project of the Japan Science and Technology Corp. "If sensors and actuators suitable for robots are available, it should be easy to build robots," putting robotics on a PC-like growth curve, he said.

The show - timed to correspond with the 52nd birthday of Japan's beloved comic-book robot Astro Boy - was expected to draw 70,000 attendees.

Sanyo Electric Co. and robot-development venture tmsuk Co. said they were forming a joint-venture sales company named tmsuk Sanyo as of April 7, Astro Boy's birthday. The pair plan to offer 50 units of a robot named Banryu, marketing it as the first commercial home-use utility robot. Shipments are to begin this month for test marketing, with the 4-foot robot priced at about $16,500.

Banryu walks at 15m per minute and can step over a 15cm threshold. It has sensors for images, sounds and scorching smells. When it detects an emergency it reports to the owner through an NTT Docomo PHS mobile phone with TV function. The owner can watch the situation remotely and control the robot over the phone.

"We have already gotten orders for 20 units. Based on user feedback, we will finalize a volume-sale model and will begin volume production this year," said Yasuhiro Suseki, president of tmsuk Sanyo.

Fujitsu has been offering a robot development platform called the Humanoid for Open Architecture Platform, or Hoap, through Fujitsu Automation Ltd. The second-generation Hoap-2 sells for about $48,000.

Now research subsidiary Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. has developed a motion control system for robots that uses a dynamically reconfigurable neural network. It is based on "the combination of CPG [central pattern generator networks] and NP [the numerical perturbation method]," said Fumio Nagashima, senior researcher of Fujitsu's peripheral-systems laboratories.

Nagashima said he optimized CPG, a mathematical simulation of the neural oscillator found in vertebrates, for the NP method, which quantifies the configuration and connection-weight status of the network.

- Yoshiko Hara

EE Times

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