December 20, 2007
Japan Robot Prize Goes to Mechanical Arm
By YURI KAGEYAMA
TOKYO - A mechanical arm that can grab 120 items a minute from a conveyor belt won Japan's Robot of the Year award Thursday, defeating a dozen flashier finalists, including a walking humanoid and a transparent torso for simulating surgery.
The government prize is the latest effort in an aggressive campaign to trumpet Japan's robotics technology as the nation's best vehicle to growth.
The award, now in its second year, sent a clear message that utility and business, rather than entertainment or academia, are at the forefront of the robotic push. Last year, a vacuum-cleaner robot won the contest.
Entries ranged from parts and Mindstorms software from Danish toy maker Lego Group to an industrial robot from Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. - maker of Subaru cars - a container-on-wheels that can lug 440 pounds of pharmaceuticals.
The three assembly-line mechanical arms from Fanuc Ltd. that won were distinguished for their practicality. They are already being used at food and pharmaceutical plants, where sanitation is critical and human error can be disastrous, said Ryo Nihei, a Fanuc manager.
Swiveling frenetically, they analyzed digital images of items scattered randomly on a swiftly moving conveyor belt and picked up the items using suction cups that blow air in and out at their tips. They then worked together to place line up the items in rows inside boxes.
Concerns about food safety have been growing in Japan following scandals involving false labels and out-of-date and substitute ingredients.
With no exposed wiring, the Fanuc robots are easy to wash and sanitize, Nihei said, and they can work 24 hours straight. And they don't misbehave.
"The trend these days is to try to avoid having human workers at all. People can get dirty and introduce unwanted objects," he said.
He didn't say which companies are using the robotic arms.
The surgery robot, called Eve, sells for $2,200.
"We made it affordable because we want as many people to take advantage of this as possible," says Seiichi Ikeda, who heads the university-backed venture to create a tool for honing doctors' skills for surgery.
Fujitsu's 24-inch-tall humanoid with a helmet-like head was an attention-getter this year, swaying and bending its arms in a graceful "tai chi chuan" dance. The $53,000 robot, which has been sold to NASA and the University of Hamburg, among other agencies, is meant to aid research in artificial intelligence, said Fujitsu's Yuichi Murase.
Machinery-maker Komatsu Ltd. showed a fire-extinguishing robot built like a tank that can be remotely controlled to go near danger spots and spew 1,300 gallons of water as far as 110 yards - more than three times as far as a human can.