Robots that are useful to us evolve out of the inconveniences in our daily life

September 14, 2020

Robots that are useful to us evolve out of the inconveniences in our daily life

Keisuke Kato
Senior Assistant Professor, School of Science and Technology,
Meiji University
 

Robots may be just robots, but our impression of them varies according to the individual. As you know, humanoids, AI (artificial intelligence), and industrial robots created based on state-of-the art technologies have been put into practical use, while practically useful robots have also been realized to support us in our daily life. The research and development of such robots is being promoted at our university.
A barrier to the widespread use of robots in our everyday life is that they are expensive

Robots and control features have long been developed with the current results having been applied practically in various forms as represented by industrial robots.

In addition, recently, making robots more intelligent has been promoted actively based on computer science as represented by AI.

Furthermore, the humanoid and dog-shaped robots developed by Boston Dynamics in the US are found to have quality in terms of not only software for surrounding environmental recognition and motion control but also hardware featuring elaborated body designs.

Some of you may have been surprised by watching robot motions on videos and other media. They are really appealing robots as they appear to be a materialization of Astro Boy, a well-known manga character. So, many of you may feel that this truly represents the development of robots.

The development of robots looking ahead 10 to 20 years as referred to above will constitute magnificent projects. However, in actuality, focusing on their practical application, we will face various hurdles other than technological development, including, first of all, what robots are intended to be used for and whether or not any specific laws and regulations should be established for robots when put into practical use.

On the other hand, there is the additional development of robots and machines that can meet our immediate needs. This is different from the development of robots configured with cutting-edge AI, humanoid robots from Boston Dynamics, and other universal robots.

For the purpose of supporting us in obviating various inconveniences in our daily life, not all the robots should be based on higher technical requirements.

For example, we at Meiji University, have developed a robot of automatic moving design capable of climbing the stairs in an ordinary house.

Our assumed users of this robot are elderly people who can climb the stairs by themselves but may encounter the risk of falling down when going up the stairs carrying bags for example. We expect that aged people would feel safe if they could rely on a robot to carry things.

In this setting, the robot need not climb the stairs so rapidly, but rather it is required to climb the stairs confidently even if it is at a slow speed. This requirement will be achieved with even those devices which can be controlled by a simplified mechanism based on lower technical requirements.

In reality, advanced robots are widely applied for industrial uses and surgical operations, but robots are not yet used widely in our daily life. This is explained by the one undeniable reason that they are expensive.

This suggests that one approach for us to make robots more practically applicable and available in our daily life is as follows: Where we find that it constitutes a barrier to the widespread use of robots in our daily life to equip robots with expensive devices and high-speed computing capabilities, we should review the needs of robots, design their mechanisms based on the roles assigned to individual robots, and identify to what level the technical requirements could be reduced.
Robots that are intended to support what people want to do
It does not necessarily hold true that people would feel dissatisfied even if the level of technology was reduced to cut the costs of robots.

Here, let us consider cleaning robots as a typical example used widely in our daily life. What is interesting about these cleaning robots is that the users are not necessarily lazy, and many are just very tidy.

In other words, they do not expect that their robot can clean every inch of their rooms, but instead, they clear any obstacles from their rooms in advance so that their robots can move freely.

This makes those who are engaged in the development of robots aware that every people are not always asking for perfectly moving or full-featured robots. This suggests that people do not necessarily rely on robots for every task but that they have a desire to do by themselves what they want to do.

If so, we must remember that robots are not always required to accomplish every task in a fully automated manner but that they should be designed to support the desire of users to do by themselves what they want to do.

This means that people and robots may have their own assigned roles and that people will not avoid but wish for and accept their own roles. The reality that people put their rooms in order before cleaning is done by a robot may provide evidence that the assumption described above is correct.

Additional strong evidence for the accuracy of the above assumption is observed in the fields of nursing care and rehabilitation.

We are told that those, for example, who are aged and unable to move their body as they wish or who have physical disabilities, are willing to use what they have been using when they were healthy and/or what able-bodied persons are using rather than using the tools intended specifically for them. This demonstrates that they want to perform what they wish by themselves whenever possible even if it is difficult to achieve.

This shows us that rather than doing what they need on behalf of them, supporting them in opening their hands or bending and stretching their arms, and lifting their arms a little to hold the weight for load reduction are more required.

For example, where those who are bedridden and unable to sit up themselves need to take a cup placed on an out-of-reach table, they can get it immediately by asking a caregiver to do so.

However, when they are given an arm which they can maneuver by themselves, they can get the cup by operating the arm by themselves and feel a sense of satisfaction even if it takes a minute or so to perform the act.

Based on the above understanding, it has been found to be important to work toward the development of universal robots allowing a sequence of caregiving tasks aimed for realization 20 years later, but a system capable of operating an arm with ease would also be useful if available now. In actuality, those needs may be present in various fields.

Specifically speaking, while aiming to develop general-purpose robots in terms of robot type, diversity also becomes essential. Robots should be simplified to a reasonable extent for their intended applications, and robots in required forms must be developed in a wide variety of types.

In reality, needless to say, the development of such simplified robots is not as easy and simple as expected. For example, when intended to reduce the number of motors incorporated, appropriate design ideas become necessary to meet the intended use. Study on speed reduction mechanisms to ensure larger forces with motors of lower power is also one of the challenges we are working on.
Robot development originates from the desire to eliminate inconveniences in our life
One approach for robot development consists of increasing the level of technical requirements to realize autonomous robots which work on behalf of humans and accomplish tasks while working by sensing human intention and of developing the relevant technologies. In contrast to this, the development of robots intended to support human in everyday life starts with identifying what is inconvenient and what is needed as the first step.

This includes the technologies necessary to meet the needs of those who require nursing care and the needs of those engaged in caregiving activities, for example. Based on listening to those engaged in nursing care, caregiving requires considerable physical strength while being consistently exposed to the risk of suffering pain in the lower back, and lower-back pain, if suffered, can inhibit caregiving activities.

So, in conjunction with promotion of the development of universal robots allowing the integration of caregiving activities, development of powered suits that can enhance the abilities of humans when worn is also in progress based on the application of the underlying technology for the development of universal robots.

In short, the powered suits increase the strength of the arms and legs, thereby enhancing the physical strength needed for caregiving activities. They have already been put into practical use, but their expensive prices constitute a barrier to widespread use.

For these devices, cutting costs is one of the current challenges. However, the road map to practical use has been established more rapidly compared to the development of autonomous robots for nursing care.

There are studies that have been launched to meet more familiar needs. We launched our study on the autonomous moving robot described earlier, which is capable of climbing stairs in an ordinary house, being motivated by the struggle to take very heavy experimental equipment up into our lab in a building without an elevator.

In order to ensure consistently stable movements by a robot to negotiate any type of stairs, we have studied wheeled, crawler, quadruped and other forms of robots by trial and error. Ultimately, we have become aware that we can design appropriate mobile robots for human support by changing the shape of robots little by little depending on various needs and situations.

Every one of us has the desire to accomplish by ourselves what we want to do. Some people, however, are unable to move their body as they wish, though they have the same desire. For others, consideration may have to be given to the risk of injury.

For those people, human support robots and other machines based on robotics technologies, when available, will offer expanded alternatives. In other words, the potential of what those people can do by themselves will expand.

Development and widespread use of these robots originate from the desire to obviate inconveniences in human life. This should provide one of the important approaches for the development of robots.



* The information contained herein is current as of August 2020.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.


Profile
 
Keisuke Kato
Senior Assistant Professor, School of Science and Technology, Meiji University
 
Research fields:
Intelligent mechanics, mechanical system (mechatronics, robot engineering)

Research themes:
Robots for human support in a living environment, mobile robots, and machine elements for robot actuation

Main books and papers:
◆Development of Step and Stairs-Climbing Vehicle Type Robot with Revolving and Rotating Sub Wheels and Telescopic Body (Mechanical Design and Experiments of Ascending and Descending Stairs) (Co-authored, Japan Society for Design Engineering (JSDE) Journal “Design Engineering,” 2020)
◆Design and Development of Stair Climbing Robot to Support Mobile and Carriage (Design of Wheels with C-shaped Passive Claws Adaptable to Shape of Step and Vehicle Body Adaptable to Distance between Stair Nosings (Co-authored, JSDE Journal “Design Engineering,” 2020)
◆Development of Quadruped Robot with Additional Center Support Leg for Moving on Indoor Spiral Stairs (Design of Center Support Leg Drive Mechanism and Foot Mechanism) (Co-authored, JSDE Journal “Design Engineering,” 2020)
◆Portable Earthquake Simulator using Omni-directional Wheels in Twist-radial Configuration – High Acceleration Drive Mechanism – (Co-authored, Japan Association for Earthquake Engineering (JAEE) Journal, 2019)
◆Development of 4+1 Leg Type Robot Moving on Winding Staircase (Motion Control for Stable Climbing) (Co-authored, JSDE Journal “Design Engineering,” 2015)
◆Automation Technology for Humanitarian Demining Task (Co-authored, Journal of the Robotics Society of Japan (JRSJ), 2001)

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