Japanese robots are famous for the complex humanoid robots, the ultra-realistic human-like androids, and other sophisticated robots that seem coming out straight from their animation series.
But it would be a shame to reduce robotics in Japan to these. Japanese robotics companies are also among world leaders in industrial robots (Fanuc, Yaskawa...), and show a great deal of diversity.
In a third part, I want to address the criticism to the fact that Japan didn't have a emergency robots after the Great Earthquake of 2011. I believe there are very good reasons that make the difference between Japan and the US.
Japan is definitely a leader in humanoid robots. They have so many humanoid robots at every scale, it is hard to talk about them all.
The most famous may be the Honda robot Asimo, that was released around 2000, and has come up last year with an upgraded version. Japan robots also provide research with the HRP series, which are state-of-the-art humanoid robots that are 1.9m tall and more than 100kg. Impressive to meet face to face! They have just made the HRP-4, which is only 1.5m and 55kg or so. Much smaller and much more like a real human. These robots are developed by the Japan Advanced Institute of Technology (J-AIST) and Kawada Industries.
HRP-4C can walk, sing and dance
The duo has also made a prototype called HRP-4C (see picture above), that can sing, dance, walk more naturally, and have scarily big hands!
But you can also go much smaller: Japan has a very active hobby robot community that is fan or remote controlled humanoids. They use robots like the Kondo-HR that are about 40cm tall, and use them in soccer challenges, robot fight and other fun activities.
You may have heard of the geminoid robots: the Japanese robots that look like the clone of their creator. They can't move their limbs, only their head. But the Geminoid robots have very advanced mechatronics to animate the face with natural expressions. They nearly look real.
Finally, do they have any useful applications for humanoid robots? They have some exoskeleton legs that are used to help patients recover walking ability. These exoskeletons are used in more than 100 clinics in Japan now. The Geminoid robots are used to train dentists, and a version is commercialized by Kokoro Industries to animate your booth at conventions or commercial events.
Japan wants to push humanoid robots to become service robots in every home in the future, but they are not ready for that yet.
While humanoids are definitely a big part of Japanese robots, they are so many other robots in this country, which are often much more useful and practical.
Paro seal robot, on the right, Fujitsu prototype on the left
Let's start cute with the Paro Seal robot, used to treat patients with dementia, or more recently to cheer up depressed people in Earthquake skruck areas. The Paro is also used in other countries as a medical tool. It seems that taking care of a pet or person is very healthy for people with dementia, and that Paro can efficiently replace a pet.
Japan also has a lot of companies developing industrial robots. Fanuc may be the most famous one, but there are many others, like Yaskawa Industries, and pretty much every Japanese car manufacturers. They have some pretty impressive robots for almost every niche you could imagine.
Toshiba has also developed the Smarbo, a robot vacuum cleaner that shines by its intelligence: it has advanced mapping algorithms that run on its dual core processor. The whole thing ships for double the price of Roomba. I am not sure the brain power is worth it, but who knows?
I have met many other Japanese robots as I have lived here for 2.5 years now. I have seen agricultural robots by Subaru. I have seen many protoypes by University research labs, testing new kinds of mobility and all. I know they have very impressive amphibious snake robots somewhere in Tokyo.
But there are not robots for emergency support, why?
The whole world was very impressed by the lack of emergency robots in Japan after the nuclear accident in Fukushima. Many people wondered why the US, or more precisely iRobot, were the only ones who could send them some robots to go inside the radioactive power plant.
I find it strange that noone pointed it out that iRobot's PackBots were developed as tools for the US Army, and that Japan has virtually no army. I think it is that simple. Japan's focus in robotics is personal robotics, while in the US, the most impressive robots are developed for the army (and for space! I do love Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, Robonaut...).
Robotic exoskeletons, for example, were first developed in the US by companies like Sarcos and Lockheed Martin to create IronMan soldiers. Then Japan created the HAL therapeutic device, while Toyota and Honda developed what they called Walking Assist Device to help the elderly and physically impaired. It's only very recently that Berkeley applied their knowledge in robotics suit technology to help paraplegic patients walk (very good stuff indeed).
We can predict that Japan learned its lesson this time. In the future, you will see many more Japanese robots for emergency dedicated to search and rescue compared to the US, in my opinion. It's a matter of funding.
By the way, the US doesn't only make military robots, though military fundings (via DARPA) are a major player in the robotics industry. But please don't blame Japan for their lack of military robots.
Robots from Japan on About-Robots.com:
The Honda robot Asimo is a great example of Japanese expertise in humanoid robots. This robot could definitely be my servant.
Remote control robots are a great to way to learn about robotics. On the page, you'll also see pictures of the Japanese hobby humanoid robots from Kondo playing soccer.