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Robots co-creating with people will contribute to disaster response and the super-aged society

Future Robotics Organization

Robotics research at Waseda University has an outstanding history spanning nearly half a century. During the 1960’s, the late Professor Ichiro Kato, called the “father of Japanese robotics research,” began pursuing robotics, and launched a cross-disciplinary project called the WABOT (short for WAseda roBOT) Project in 1970. It developed a large number of humanoid robots as the university’s flagship project.

The principle of our robotics research is ‘people-robot symbiosis’ and we have been developing various robots that would support, help and work with people. We have launched an integrated educational and research platform for medical, nursing, and assisted-living robots, and we have been expanding this platform to a unique, multi-layered organization of experts from various fields including electrical and mechanical engineering. The Humanoid Robotics Institute was established in 2000, and the WABOT-HOUSE Laboratory opened in Gifu prefecture as a research base on the integration of robots and community environments in 2002.

Professor Masakatsu G. Fujie, Chairperson of the Future Robotics Organization

At the same time, Waseda has established an integrated educational and research platform for training young researchers. In 2003, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (MEXT) began its 21st century COE program called “Innovative research on symbiosis technologies for humans and robots in population aging.” In 2008, MEXT implemented the Global COE program “Global Robot Academia.” The university has aimed to consolidate extensive cross-disciplinary robotics studies into Waseda-oriented “Methodological robotics” based on Waseda’s outstanding robotics researches. In addition, the university has also aimed to educate researchers that can conquer various challenges facing the global research community by expanding opportunities for students to study overseas.

To integrate the activities described above, the university established the Future Robotics Organization in 2015. The mission is to accelerate achievements that meet the needs of the 21st century. We spoke with Masakatsu G. Fujie, the Chairperson of the organization and a professor in the Faculty of Science and Engineering about the activities.

History of developing robots at Waseda University and “people-robot symbiosis”

Pursuit of Human-centered Robot Development

“There are two important development fields in which we must take global leadership. First is the field of disaster response robots, which has recently expanded rapidly as a response to the Great East Japan Earthquake. Second is the field of human support robots for super-aged society. EU and Japanese policy with overriding priority is to develop robots for peace. We have tackled the challenge to develop robots that can interact with people. Associate with the EU, we must create a trend toward human-centered research.” said Prof. Fujie.

The Future Robotics Organization was launched with the following three main pillars of research and development institute: disaster response, healthcare, and co-creation, while taking into consideration the national and international situations.

Disaster response robot, “Octopus”
Published for the first time in March 2015 at a meeting for “Disaster Response Robot Industrial Cluster Development Support” in Fukushima.

”Institute for Disaster Response Robotics” mainly works under the support of the “Disaster Response Robot Industrial Cluster Development Support Project” implemented by the Fukushima prefectural government. The institute engages in joint research between industry and academia with Kikuchi Seisakusho Co., ltd. (head office: Hachioji city, Tokyo) which has a development base in Minami-Soma city, Fukushima. Development of the disaster response robot, “Octopus,” started at this base immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake. The robot was designed to rescue people and remove debris in complex terrain or narrow spaces in disaster-stricken areas. The robot was launched for the first time in Fukushima at about the same time the Future Robotics Organization was established.

Prof. Fujie commented, “The robot was named Octopus because of its four arms and four legs. We will expand its use from post-disaster recovery to nuclear decontamination and decommissioning of the nuclear plant. The Fukushima prefectural government aims to turn the prefecture into a base for robot industrial cluster development and we plan to open our satellite lab in there. We will also use Waseda University’s medical, nursing, and assisted-living robot technologies to contribute to developing this base.”

Members of the Waseda University Manga Club helped create an illustration of the robot at work

“Institute for Healthcare Robotics” focuses to develop technologies for medical and assistive robots. Waseda University has been working on these technologies for a long time. The institute also plans to incorporate human studies, such as mental health and communication, into their area of robot technologies to develop robots that can help people live healthy and comfortable lives.

For healthcare for elder people, the institute developed a tremor suppression robot. The robot can detect a signal from the brain that causes tremors and softly suppress it by wearing it around their arm. It was recognized at the 2015 R&D100 Awards of the American R&D Magazine, a series of awards given to 100 products developed and launched in the year that utilize pioneering technology. A product jointly developed by Waseda University (myoelectric signal processing), Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI; sensor technology), and Kikuchi Seisakusho (device production) received this honor.

Spiral-shaped robot for suppressing tremors

“I was thrilled because I had always wanted to win this award,” said Prof. Fujie, “I believe one of the determinants was the simple attachment method. The spiral-shaped robot was produced using a 3D molding machine to fit a user’s arm, and the user could wear it by simply putting their arm on the robot.”

Achieving “Tool-Body Assimilation” Using Robots

The institute also conducts research on ways to reproduce surgical techniques of top-level physicians with precision using robot technologies and commercialize surgical and educational assistant robots. A manual procedure is an integration of two movement skills: moving the hands while carefully observing and thinking about an object, and, moving the hand unconsciously and automatically through training. Professionals can use tools as if they were part of their bodies.

“We call it ‘tool-body assimilation.’ I would like to develop high-level robot technology that allows a robot to use tools and apply technology to acupuncture of Eastern medicine and the latest medical treatment called interventional radiology (IVR), which involves inserting a needle to cancer cells for localized treatment. By doing so I hope to make the skills of top-level physicians widely accessible,” said Prof. Fujie.

Clinical robotic surgery experiment

“Institute for Human Robot Co-Creation” is pursuing advanced technology that serves as the foundation of humanoids to further upgraded robots that work with people. Prof. Shigeki Sugano, Prof. Atsuo Takanishi and Prof. Fujie, key persons in robotics research, are working together in a major joint research project titled “Research on Active Coordination Technology for Human Symbiotic Robot.” (Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (S); 2013–2018 (plan))

According to Prof. Fujie, “Our goal is to create a robot that can walk with a person through the crowds near the Kaminarimon in Asakusa. You may wonder what is so special about that). Things we do unconsciously and effortlessly—moving through a crowd without colliding with others while keeping a reasonable distance from their partner—are very difficult for robots to do.”

University Spin-Out Venture Company and Business-University Collaboration to Drive Institute’s Mission

One of the important missions of the Future Robotics Organization is swift commercialization and making products available for practical use. The university spin-out venture company and business-university collaboration drive this mission. In 2015, the university spin-out company, Future Robotics Corporation, was established. Professor Hiroshi Yamakawa represents the company, and institute members who teach at the university and the aforementioned Kikuchi Seisakusho manage the company.

“The objectives of establishing a university spin-out company is of course to start business early. At the same time, it offers a neutral environment for young researchers and helps strengthen cross-sectional collaborative relationships. The Future Robotics Organization has 20 university instructors as key persons. I would like to create a research platform where researchers from various fields work together and promote integrated study. Although the venture company and institute members have been sharing experimental and measurement facilities dotted across university campuses, the institute is now planning to improve these facilities more strategically and intensively,” said Prof. Fujie.

There have also been two large projects implemented by the Cabinet Office. One is the “Four-Leg Robot Project” (leading researcher: Professor Atsuo Takanishi) as part of the “Tough Robotics Challenge” hosted by the “Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies Program (ImPACT).” The other is the “Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) project” titled “Development of Robots Allowing Intuitive Remote Operation Using Anthropometric Technology” (leading researcher: Prof. Fujie). The former plays an important role in the disaster response robot project in Fukushima. The latter has led to a joint project with Tokyo Gas to develop an urban lifeline infrastructural maintenance robot.

“It has been 50 years since the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games,” commented Prof. Fujie. “Maintenance and management of urban infrastructure such as underground gas pipes have become issues. The institute is developing a robot that can find outworn or damaged equipment without excavating the ground and repair it efficiently.”

Much is expected from robotics research at Waseda University—it started at the time of the previous Tokyo Olympic Games and is now aiming for a quantum leap to renew cities and provinces in preparation for the next Tokyo Olympic Games.

Research Frameworks at the Future Robotics Organization

Related links

Waseda University Humanoid Robotics Institute
Waseda University Institute of Advanced Active Aging Research
Waseda University Research Institute for Science and Engineering
Waseda University Global Robot Academia
Waseda University WABOT-HOUSE Laboratory