Service robots have emerged as a powerful weapon in battling the virus and meeting social needs as communities worldwide struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. Using ultraviolet light, sterilizing robots disinfect hospitals and aircraft, delivery robots conduct contactless deliveries, and avatar robots are also available at graduation for university students. Japan has long been a leading producer of industrial and service robots. The pandemic is accelerating the production of robots as a service (RaaS) to enhance human skills and alleviate individuals’ stressful and repetitive work.
Robots to Cure Isolation
Avatar robots are an evolving field of service robots that allow users to control interactive devices remotely and project their presence into a distant area, often referred to as telepresence robots. Ory Laboratories, a Tokyo-based robotics startup, is developing avatar robots that will help not only those who operate during the pandemic from home but individuals with chronic health problems that prohibit them from leaving their home or care facility.
Orihime Biz is a robot for desktop communication that runs on a smartphone, tablet, or PC. Orihime is about 20 cm tall and fitted with a camera, microphone, and speaker and can move its head and arms in a sleek, streamlined style. Children with physical impairments have managed Orihime to attend training digitally. An instructor who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) used it in one instance to participate in the graduation ceremony of his students.
“Orihime has been increasingly used for social distance applications since the pandemic, such as users who want to attend discussions in avatar form,” says Yuki Aki, Ory Laboratories’ COO and co-founder. “It was also used to greet recuperating COVID-19 patients at a Kanagawa Prefecture hotel.”
Yuki’s history is motivated by her love for robotic avatars. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis and could not attend school, which made her very lonely. Yuki met fellow prizewinner Yoshifuji Kentaro, now CEO of Ory, through the Japan Science & Engineering Challenge (JSEC), a contest for young science enthusiasts where she won a prize. He told her about his concept of expanding human abilities by robots, and they set up Ory Laboratories in 2012 after creating a prototype as college students.
“I wanted to solve the problem of loneliness,” Yuki says. “The instrument for accomplishing that mission turned out to be a robot, but it could be something entirely different as well.”
There are now more than 20 workers in the startup, two robot forms, and one operation. Aside from Orihime Biz, Orihime D, a mobile robot standing 120 cm tall, about an elementary school student, has been created. It can hold items such as trays and drinks under the control of remote users. Meanwhile, Orihime eye for users such as ALS patients who can only turn their pupils, fingers, or other body parts is an eye-tracking communication system. It can be used to interact or run robots like Orihime with loved ones.
“Orihime D has been used as an avatar waiter in cafés that we organize as temporary events, and users can experience what it is like to operate in the service industry by controlling it,” Yuki says. “One man who used it said that, for the first time in his life, he was able to earn money and decided to buy clothes for his mother, who cares for him because he can’t work.”
In partnership with a regional government in Denmark, Ory Laboratories has provided robots for children confined to their homes or hospitals. The business is now focused on extending its avatars and would like to collaborate overseas with other partners.
“By 2050, we want to have nursing robots, such as eye-controlled avatars, that can help individuals care for themselves in their old age,” Yuki says. Via your robot, you might take continuing education classes or attend school reunions. We imagine a future world in which avatar robots are an extension of yourself and help you overcome the human body’s limitations.
Robotic Chefs To The Rescue
Founded in 2014, it targets an underserved but potentially enormous market: automated food preparation, especially Japanese cuisine. OctoChef, a computer that can cook up to 96 takoyaki, a Japanese snack made up of sliced octopus and other ingredients in a ball of batter, are the first robot. Using AI, computer vision, and a collaborative robot arm, the OctoChef will whip them together in 15 to 20 minutes.
“The Japanese industry needs more employees, but the labour market is shrinking and ageing,” says Sawanobori Tetsuya, CEO, and founder. “We want to help by providing robots with temperatures of 200 C that can take over difficult cooking jobs, working long hours over a hotplate.”
Born into a family of restaurateurs, Sawanobori dreamed of making his eatery as a child. But he was also drawn to robotics and computer science subjects, which he studied in college. By winning the top prize at Startup Weekend Robotics and entering the Kirin Accelerator Program, funded by Kirin Holdings, owner of Kirin Brewery, he gained some early momentum. A variety of OctoChef machines have been built across Japan by Fast-forward to 2020 and Linked Robotics. It introduced another robot earlier this year that can make soba noodles. According to the company, restaurants that rent the system will save 50% of cooking soba noodles.
“Our machines can move smoothly as collaborative robots that work alongside people while being adaptive and flexible,” says Sawanobori. In confined spaces, such as restaurant kitchens, this is particularly important. We can achieve smooth, intelligent machines with our control technology and computer vision to help get the job done.
Various other food-related robots have been developed by Connected Robotics, including a system that produces soft-serve ice cream, another that prepares deep-fried foods frequently sold at Japanese convenience stores. Yet, another that cooks breakfast bacon and eggs. It was also chosen for the J-Startup initiative of the Japanese government, which highlights promising startups in Japan and has raised more than 950 million yen ($9.1 million) from investors, including Global Brain, Sony Innovation Fund, and Japan 500 Startups.
More than just cooking food in the kitchen, Connected Robotics needs robots to do more. It is partnering with the state-backed New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) to resolve the challenge of loading and unloading dishwashers. One robot arm will prewash dishes and load them into a dishwasher under the project, and another component will store the clean dishes. Next spring, the company plans to roll out the unit, part of its target of getting 100 robot systems built in Japan over the next two years. It wants to branch out overseas into regions such as Southeast Asia from that point.
“We can be competitive globally, I think, because while there are some robots that can make hamburgers, spaghetti or pizza, there are no other companies that are serious about Japanese cooking so far,” Sawanobori says. “We want to spread the culture of Japan while demonstrating our unique technologies and strengths.”