As the subway roared into Tokyo’s Tsukishima Station a gust of wind tossed up a stray face mask, sending it sailing above the platform.
Hisashi Taniguchi watched the piece of fabric fluttering about. He immediately pictured in his mind a microscopic view in which the wind dispersed — in the air he was breathing — countless viral particles that had been trapped between the mask’s filters.
There needs to be an efficient system to disinfect these public spaces, he thought. This was back in March, when the spread of COVID-19 was just starting to pick up speed in the capital. Taniguchi, founder and CEO of Tokyo-based robotics firm ZMP Inc., immediately got to work.
Three months later he returned to the same station to experiment with PATORO, an unmanned, self-driving security robot featuring disarming anime-like digital eyes and an added disinfectant-spraying function. PATORO is just one of ZMP’s recently introduced group of autonomous robots called the Anti-Coronavirus Robot Squad, which also features autonomous delivery robots and self-driving vehicles.
“The public health crisis has created demand for service robots that allow for reduced human contact,” Taniguchi says. “With payrolls being cut amid the pandemic and Japan’s workforce aging and shrinking, these robots will eventually be part of everyday life.”
Robots have helped boost efficiency in product lines for decades, but the pandemic is seeing a new wave of service robots emerge from the confines of factories to handle disinfection, transportation and other essential tasks necessary to maintain safety and social distancing.
Armed with artificial intelligence, these robots have been experiencing an upsurge in demand, owing to high labor costs, a lack of skilled workers, and increased investment in research and development. Allied Market Research says the global service robotics market size is expected to grow to $34.7 billion by 2022 with a compound annual growth rate of 23.9 percent from 2015 to 2022.
Firms from the United States, China and elsewhere are racing to produce service robots to accommodate various needs ranging from health care and security to entertainment and leisure. Japan has been no exception, with COVID-19 prompting numerous companies to offer their technology in the battle against the pathogen.
Omron Corp., a Kyoto-based electronics company, has been selling automated carrier robots armed with ultraviolet lights and disinfectant sprayers under partnerships with system integrators of more than 20 countries, including Canada, Poland and South Korea. Originally designed to transport goods in factories and warehouses, Omron’s robots are provided to partners who add the sterilizing functions before supplying them to their respective markets.
“Our robots are equipped with laser scanners that allow them to create a map of the area they are dispatched to and avoid obstacles” says Yuko Murayama, a spokesperson for the company. “The robots we provide have been tried and tested for years at factories.”
Omron is now working to introduce the robots in Japan, Murayama says, with prices ranging from ¥6 million to ¥8 million.
Mira Robotics Inc., a startup based in the industrial city of Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, has been developing “ugo,” a remote-controlled robot with a pair of height-adjustable industrial arms mounted on wheels designed to assist the country’s shrinking and graying labor force, according to the company’s founder.
“Ugo was developed to handle maintenance and security work at office buildings,” says Ken Matsui, CEO of the company. “But the pandemic necessitated the reduction of human contact and disinfection, so we added a hand attachment that uses ultraviolet light to kill viruses on elevator buttons and door handles while it patrols, cleans and records the temperature of the premises.”
The robot, which is operated remotely by a laptop and a game controller, is currently being trialed at a Tokyo office building with plans to expand testing in buildings in Nagoya and Osaka before being officially released this fall, Matsui says.
“The number of inquiries about our product has jumped threefold since March,” he says. “I think COVID-19 is accelerating the development of service robots, perhaps even by three to five years.”
Meanwhile, Sharp Corp.’s mobile robot, RoBoHon, began manning the reception desk at an inn called bnb + hostel in Tokyo’s Toranomon district in June. Guests checking in are greeted by the small, cute robot that alerts staff in a remote office who can communicate with the customer via RoBoHon using a smartphone or tablet terminal.
“The idea is to reduce human contact in order to curtail infection risks,” says Miho Kagei, a Sharp official, who adds that the company has been approached by another 10 or so establishments, including inns and cafes interested in the service.
Rise of the machines
Demand for technology to fill the void left by a shrinking workforce and creaking medical care systems has soared over the past decade as the country struggles to cope with the socioeconomic burdens associated with an aging population.
After peaking in 2008, Japan’s population has been shrinking while the number of older people grows. As of 2019, those older than 65 accounted for a record 28.4 percent of the population, or 35.88 million people. That ratio is forecast to reach 30 percent by 2025, and 35.3 percent by 2040, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
The coronavirus is worsening conditions for the elderly, who are the most vulnerable and likely to require hospitalization, while putting medical workers in greater danger.
In order to reduce contact risks and automate much of the testing process, Kobe-based Medicaroid, a joint startup between Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Sysmex Corp., is working on three robot systems designed to handle some of the work involved in PCR tests that typically require human involvement.
The robots are based on Kawasaki Heavy’s duAro2 dual-arm unit that is used to assemble and package electronic components. They’re programmed to take on a variety of tasks, including the retrieval of saliva samples from patients, inactivating and testing the virus, and caring for patients admitted to hospitals through temperature readings and recording their meals and medication.
“We plan to finish trials in September and begin operation in October at a medical facility in Kobe,” says Izumi Yamamoto, a spokesperson for the company. “We’re hoping the robots will help curb the risk of infection and reduce the workload at testing labs.”
With human contact socially restricted amid the pandemic to date, contactless deliveries have become highly sought after as a lucrative market, with tech companies across the globe rolling out robots to transport goods.
Starship Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup founded by Skype co-founders in 2014, has been ramping up commercial services of autonomous six-wheeled delivery robots that are capable of carrying items in a 6-kilometer radius. The firm now operates these last-mile robots that look like cooler boxes in several countries, including the U.S., Britain and Germany, and has announced plans to expand its service to 100 university campuses in the United States.
In China, e-commerce giant JD.com’s autonomous vehicles began taking orders in February to deliver medical supplies to a hospital and groceries to local communities in Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Delivery app Meituan Dianping has also been using autonomous vehicles to send groceries to Beijing residents in hopes that it will alleviate the labor shortage for delivery orders.
Similar developments have been taking place in Japan, led by companies such as Taniguchi’s ZMP that have been conducting public demonstrations of unmanned deliveries.
In mid-August, ZMP made a trial run of its DeliRo autonomous robot at the capital’s Takanawa Gateway Station, delivering soba noodles to customers who placed orders using a tablet and made cashless payments. Standing around 1 meter tall, the DeliRo can carry a payload of 50 kilograms and can detect and avoid obstacles while traveling at a maximum speed of 6 kilometers per hour.
The government is also putting its weight behind autonomous delivery services as a means to alleviate the labor shortage stemming from the rapidly aging population and low birthrate.
An expert panel under the National Police Agency started talks on how traffic rules should apply to delivery robots, and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had called to allow trials on public roads by the end of the year.
“Ultimately, the services provided by these robots need to be economically beneficial for companies to want to use them,” Taniguchi says. “We’re trying to create that successful model.”
The DeliRo can carry up to four or eight deliveries in one go, akin to a moving home delivery box. Taniguchi says ZMP plans on starting off by offering its services at Tsukuda, a bayside area in central Tokyo known for residential high-rises.
“There are around five residential towers in the eastern district where I live. One building is home to around 2,000 residents, so that means there are around 10,000 residents living in those high-rises, and that much demand for remote deliveries,” he says. Once shipments are packed, the DeliRo will drive up to the entrance of the apartment building and notify customers of its arrival through an app.
Demand for robots such as DeliRo is expected to grow. The Boston Consulting Group estimates that there will be a shortage of around 240,000 truck drivers in Japan by 2027 due to mass retirements and other factors.
ZMP also began test-driving its autonomous single-seater robot RakuRo in the area in August, with plans to lease them for ¥10,000 a month. The main targets are elderly residents who have voluntarily returned their driving licenses, Taniguchi says.
“Parking spaces in these high-rises are going vacant as older residents give up driving,” Taniguchi says. “We want to park our RakuRo robots in these spaces instead and allow senior citizens to use them to go to supermarkets and hospitals. I call this the RoboTown project and want to make it a model case for how humans and robots can co-exist.”