Business / Tech

Postman, shopper, builder: In Japan, there's a robot for that


Forget the flashy humanoids with their gymnastics skills: At the World Robot Summit in Tokyo, the focus was on robots that can deliver the mail, shop and build a house.

One example was ZMP Inc.’s CarriRo Delivery, a robot shaped a bit like a toy London bus, with bright, friendly “eyes” on its front. It can zip around the streets at 6 kilometer per hour and deliver packages.

CarriRo “is designed to roll along the pavement and direct itself via GPS to an address within a two-kilometer radius,” explained Chio Ishikawa, from Sumitomo Corp., which is promoting the robot.

The recipient of the package has a code sent to a smartphone, allowing him or her to access CarriRo’s innards and retrieve whatever is inside — mail, medicine or dinner.

Services like this are especially needed in aging Japan. With nearly 28 percent of the population over 65, mobility is increasingly limited and the country is struggling for working-age employees.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s HSR (Human Support Robot) may not be an oil painting to look at — standing a meter tall, it looks like a bin with arms — but it can provide vital help for the aged or handicapped at home.

Capable of handling and maneuvering a variety of objects, it also provides a key interface with the outside world via its internet-connected screen-for-a-head.

The country’s manpower shortage is felt especially keenly in the retail and construction sectors, and firms at the summit were keen to demonstrate their latest solutions.

Omron Corp. showcased a robot that can be programed to glide around a supermarket and place various items into a basket. Possibly useful for a physically disabled shopper, but more likely to be put to use in a logistics warehouse.

Japan also has difficulty finding staff to stack shelves at its 55,000 convenience stores, and here, too, robots can fill the gap.

A man empties the basket of a robot made by Omron.
A man empties the basket of a robot made by Omron. | AFP-JIJI

With buildings going up at breakneck pace as Tokyo prepares to welcome the world for the 2020 Games, there are construction sites all over the city but not always enough people to work them.

Enter HRP-5P — the humanoid-shaped machine certainly has the look of a brawny builder, at 182 centimeters tall and weighing in at 101 kilograms.

The robot is designed to carry out the same construction tasks that humans currently perform — even when left to its own devices.

HRP-5P “can use the same tools as a man, which is why we gave it the shape of a human — two legs, two arms and a head,” explained one of its creators, Kenji Kaneko from the National Advanced Industrial Science and Technology research facility.

The HRP-5P robot is displayed at the World Robot Summit in Tokyo on Thursday.
The HRP-5P robot is displayed at the World Robot Summit in Tokyo on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

Manufacturers were also promoting the latest in talking robots, which are becoming increasingly “intelligent” in their responses.

Sharp Corp.’s Robohon, a cute-as-pie humanoid robot standing only 20 cm tall, has been employed since last month to recount to tourists the history of Kyoto — in English, Japanese or Chinese.

And very popular among Japanese visitors to the World Robot Summit was a robot replica of TV star Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.

A woman speaks with the android robot
A woman speaks with the android robot ‘totto’, which replicates Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, one of the country’s top TV stars. | AFP-JIJI

Created in collaboration with Japanese robotics master Hiroshi Ishiguro, the robot replicates the 85-year-old’s facial expressions almost perfectly, but conversation with the machine hardly flows.

“The difficulty is being able to create fluid conversations with different people,” said Junji Tomita, an engineer at telecom giant NTT Docomo Inc., which is also involved in the project.

“The number of possible responses to an open question is so vast that it is very complicated,” Tomita admitted.