Business / Tech

Japan Robot Week offers new approaches to nursing care

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Japan Robot Week kicked off Wednesday with a major Tokyo exhibition showcasing new technologies for everything from communications and remote video monitoring to disaster response.

Nursing is a prominent theme, with a special display area for products designed to facilitate care for the elderly or infirm.

The nursing space was arranged by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to give manufacturers a boost as Japan grapples with the aging population.

“The aging society is a big issue for this country,” said Takahisa Mano, deputy director of technical research at the Manufacturing Science and Technology Center, the organization overseeing the special exhibition space. Mano said in the future there may be too few facilities and staff to care for those who need it.

A typical exhibitor is Cyberdyne Inc., of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. The firm is displaying its Hybrid Assistive Limb — known as HAL — which helps people with severely limited leg mobility to walk.

This month, the firm announced the release of a new HAL model designed for healthy people. Worn on the waist, it gives the user extra lifting power when picking up heavy objects.

Akira Hosokawa, a Cyberdyne business planner, said the new unit mainly targets people working at nursing care facilities.

“Employee turnover is a serious problem for the nursing care industry,” said Hosokawa. He said many workers suffer back problems from carrying patients, a reason often cited for leaving the job.

Tokyo University of Science and Hosei University are also displaying wearable robot suits that assist people in performing nursing care work.

Other nursing care-related exhibits are not conventional robots but systems, such as those that use cameras and computers to monitor elderly people living alone or those with dementia.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Electric Tokki Systems Corp. is showcasing a machine designed to work at disaster sites.

Its Frigo-M weighs 23 kg and resembles a small tank.

The robot can run up and down stairs and has already proved its paces inside the No. 1 reactor building at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Robot toys that can verbally communicate with their users are on display as well.

Tomy Co., the major Tokyo-based toy maker, unveiled a new communications robot called Robi jr. that can speak about 1,000 phrases and sing about 50 songs.

The 20-cm-tall humanoid robot that will hit the market in January can move its arms and legs, but can’t walk.

The biennial exhibition, featuring 144 firms, runs until Friday at Tokyo Big Sight.