Countries in Asia are looking to use robots to increase productivity and become less dependent on manpower.
Singapore has this year budgeted US$333 million to develop and pilot robots, while South Korea is spending US$60 million to build disaster rescue robots. Japan has recently committed US$22 million to develop elderly care robots.
As they look to trial this technology, we look at five robot projects from the region which are helping governments.
Broadly, these robots have three kinds of roles: they replace humans where it is not safe to have people; assist humans to make tasks easier; and automate repetitive tasks so that people can focus on more creative thinking.
1. Support for the elderly, Japan
Japan has built an experimental robot to take care of the elderly, such as lifting them out of beds into wheelchairs and helping them stand up.
The robot has a teddy-bear-like face for a more friendly appearance and powerful, flexible arms to lift people off the ground. It has been specially designed to have gentler movements so that it doesn’t injure its elderly patients.
Robear was developed by Toshiharu Mukai of Meijo University, while he was heading the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team at the RIKEN research institute.
“Patients, especially old people, don’t like mechanical appearance. Patients need to feel that robots are their friends,” Mukai told The Verge.
Japan will need 2.53 million caregivers in 2025 for its growing population of elderly people, according to the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare.
Not only does this take people away from other jobs which would directly contribute to the economy, but can also be very strenuous work. For instance, elderly patients have to be lifted 40 times a day on average, which can cause lower-back pain for caregivers.
2. Patient care, Singapore
Singapore’s public hospitals are testing robots which could be directly involved in patient care. They would be particularly helpful to prevent the spread of infectious diseases between patients and nurses.
One robot is being used to turn patients over in their beds to avoid bed sores, and another can move patients between their beds and the toilets.
Some hospitals are also using robots behind-the-scenes for transporting lab samples and packing drugs in pharmacies. The pharmacy robot scans barcodes on drug packages to ensure that the right medicines are being given to each patient.
3. Fire rescue, South Korea
South Korea is building robots to rescue people from massive fires, like in chemical plants or explosions, where it is too dangerous for people to go in.
The Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is building two kinds of robots for this project.
One is a small robot that can be dropped by a drone at rescue sites to search for people. A second robot will lift heavy material like concrete debris and punch holes through walls to make way for rescuers.
The biggest challenge for building such robots is anticipating the different scenarios they will have to face in complex rescue missions, said Professor Jun-Ho Oh, Director of the Humanoid Robot Research Centre at KAIST
“At this point we know that fire resisting materials are important, and we have to be able to sense human lives. But there are so many potential problems, they have to be solved one by one,” he said.
4. Sanitation and cleaning, Singapore
Agencies across Singapore are looking for robots to keep the city clean. They have released a joint call for proposals for companies and research institutes to provide six kinds of robots.
All of them are looking to reduce the number of people needed for cleaning and the amount of time they spend on the tasks.
The National Environment Agency wants a robot boat that will navigate itself through waterways picking up litter. It is also looking for a robot to sweep and mop staircases in office buildings. And it wants a third robot to clean roadside drains.
The Housing Development Board wants a robot to identify which parts of public housing estates need cleaning. This will help reduce the amount of water needed for cleaning
The Civil Aviation Authority has called for a robot to clean floors and seats on airplanes. And the Institute of Mental Health wants robots to clean its hospital beds.
Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is using a robotic suit to help employees lift heavy luggage and cargo. These could be used for loading and unloading luggage from airplane cargo holds, baggage conveyor belts and buses.
With Japan’s declining birth rate, there are less young people available for employment. The airport has turned to robots to make tasks easier for its existing employees.
The battery-powered suit works by reading brain signals to muscles, prompting the machine to support the weight the person is lifting.
The robotic suit was first tested in August last year, and has been using three robotic suits in its domestic terminal since September.
These robot projects from the region can help governments take the stress off their labour force, and ensure that people can focus on more creative contributions.