Haneda airport to be used as testing ground for robot technology


Staff Writer

Tokyo’s Haneda airport is set to become a testing ground for new robot technologies under a joint project announced Thursday by its operator and leading robot developer Cyberdyne Inc.

The companies said the project is aimed at showcasing Japan’s cutting-edge technologies and a model for robot utilization the rest of the world can follow.

The announcement came on the heels of the Cabinet’s approval Tuesday of the government’s revamped Japan Revitalization Strategy, which lists support for robot research and development as one of the main areas of focus.

According to Haneda’s operator, Japan Airport Terminal Co., the key goal of the project is to “communicate Japan’s technology from Haneda airport, a doorstep of Japan” to the world.

“Haneda airport is a hub for domestic flights, and it’s seeing international landing slots expanding, routes expanding and inbound passengers increasing,” said President Isao Takashiro.

“And we have explored ways to take advantage of these characteristics and use the airport as a place where we can showcase the great things in Japan, such as its technology, industry, culture, history, and so on.”

Japan is fast embracing the use of robots in daily life. The Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture will open the Henna Hotel (Weird Hotel) on July 17, featuring humanoid robots that will greet visitors at the front desk while other robots serve coffee and do the cleaning.

Meanwhile, Mizuho Bank is scheduled to unleash the Pepper, SoftBank Corp.’s talking humanoid robot, in various branches around the middle of this month, according to a bank spokesman.

On Wednesday, the industry ministry set up a section dedicated to promoting the use of robots in areas like the services sector.

In the initial phase of the Haneda project, Cyberdyne, the Japanese firm known primarily for its HAL exoskeletal robot suits, will by September provide five versions designed to help workers complete loading tasks. They will be used, for example, by workers handling merchandise at airport shops.

Cyberdyne says the suits work by detecting electric signals from the wearer’s brain to help people move the goods more easily.

“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,” said Cyberdyne CEO Yoshiyuki Sankai. “HAL can protect their backs by providing assisting power.”

The project will also introduce five stubby, cylindrical automatic cleaning robots that look like taller versions of the popular Roomba housecleaning robot, and three transportation robots capable of carrying up to 200 kg.

Sankai said using an airport as a testing ground offer significant advantages compared to towns and cities, where laws and regulations could limit their uses.

“An airport is actually a huge place, like a small town, so to speak,” Sankai said.

“What it means for us to get a place like that to test our robots is, we have a chance to come up with something that can be directly applied to general society, something we can do to bring our towns to the next phase of development, like painting a future from the airport.”

“In that sense, I am expecting there will be major progress” in the use of robots, he added.