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Robotics Research Exploits Opportunities for Growth

Jan Krikke

Japan, Korea, and the US are making promising new strides in robotics research. Japan's industrial giants have developed robots that monitor hospital patients, warn against intruders, and serve as companions for the elderly. Following the ancient Chinese phrase, "crisis equals opportunity," they're predicting that rising health care costs, labor shortages, and the aging population will create an enormous market for robots. Korea is also well-situated for growth in the robotics market. Perhaps in an attempt to leapfrog Japan, it has developed a wireless robot platform that brings thin-client concepts to the world of robots. The US, looking to capitalize on the growing use of sensor networks, hopes to use robots to monitor a wide range of sensors. Projects in all three countries include plans to deploy robots as "companions" that unobtrusively perform a range of services.

Offering "life support"

Japan recently displayed its prowess as a developer of smart robots at Expo 2005 (, where Toshiba showcased its two robotic companions, ApriAlpha V3 and ApriAttenda. Toshiba bills the two smart robots as "life support partners" that offer human-centric technologies to help the elderly and young children in the home and public places (see For example, the robots can control certain home appliances and provide information such as news or weather updates.

Graphic: Toshiba's "life support partners," ApriAlpha V3 (front) and ApriAttenda. (photo courtesy of Toshiba)

Figure    Toshiba's "life support partners," ApriAlpha V3 (front) and ApriAttenda. (photo courtesy of Toshiba)

ApriAlpha, the smaller of the two robots, is equipped with six sensors for omnidirectional sound capture, enabling it to distinguish and recognize voices from any direction. It can offer greetings to one person, then turn to respond to a question from another.

Its taller sibling, ApriAttenda, can follow its owner, relying on visual sensors and high-speed image-processing technology to identify its owner by the color and texture of his or her clothing. Toshiba's proprietary algorithm enables the robot to extract its owner from cluttered and dynamic backgrounds. Eight ultrasonic sensors help ApriAttenda measure distances and navigate around obstacles. It moves forward when its owner moves forward, but it constantly calculates the owner's proximity and adjusts its speed to maintain a discrete distance. When the owner stops, ApriAttenda moves up and to the owner's side before stopping as well. If ApriAttenda loses visual contact, it calls out to its owner to restore contact. The prototype operates for approximately one hour on a fully charged battery.

Another Japanese company, Secom, is working on a more aggressive companion—a robotic security guard ( The Secom School Security system combines RFID technology and the company's three-foot, 260-pound Robot X to monitor children at schoolyards. Rolling up to 10 kilometers per hour on its six wheels, Robot X can chase down intruders while flashing its lights, sounding sirens, and producing smoke. Cameras relay live video to a remote security facility, and parents receive reports of their children's whereabouts via their cell phones. Secom rents Robot X for US$2,700 a month.

In the US, work is under way to develop a robotic aid for the visually impaired ( Researchers at Utah State University have built a prototype called Robotic Guide that helps the visually impaired navigate through stores, again using RFID technology. RG has a microcontroller that receives instructions from an attached laptop computer with a speech-synthesis engine. Using a Braille store directory and a numeric keypad, users can tell the device what to look for, and it then directs the person to the appropriate aisle and shelf.

Entering the workforce

A mass-market for androids is years away (see the " Robot Platforms" sidebar), but sales of utilitarian robots like floor cleaners and lawn mowers are increasing. Retailing for as little as US$200, they look set to become as ubiquitous as washing machines. Working unobtrusively (and mostly at night), robots will clean floors in office buildings, cut grass on golf courses, and patrol shopping malls and industrial estates.

In June of this year, Italy's Robotica Zucchetti introduced a high-end automated lawn mower, a "set-and-forget" system that mows 3,000 square meters (three quarters of an acre) before making its way back to the charging station. The Evolution can be used on sporting fields and most golf courses (it can deal with inclines of up to 27 degrees). For large areas, users can deploy two or more Evolutions. The machine requires the installation of perimeter wires, which are either attached to spikes or buried in the ground. It retails for US$2,299, but can significantly reduce the cost of maintaining lawns and sports facilities (see

In January of this year, Matsushita Electric Works (MEW) delivered two hospital robots to the Cardiovascular Center Sakakibara Hospital in Okayama. The robots deliver medicines from the on-site pharmacy on the second floor to the reception on the first floor using an elevator. The staff places the medicine in the robot's receptacle and selects the destination from a touch display panel on the front of the robot. The robot chooses the route and proceeds to the destination autonomously. It says hello when it encounters patients and visitors. The robots, jointly developed by MEW and Shiga University of Medical Science, have been fully operational since March (

Graphic: A tomato-harvesting robot developed at Okayama University's Laboratory of Agricultural Systems Engineering. (photo courtesy of Mitsuji Monta)

Figure    A tomato-harvesting robot developed at Okayama University's Laboratory of Agricultural Systems Engineering. (photo courtesy of Mitsuji Monta)

Japan's electronics giant NEC used the Aichi Expo to introduce PaPeRo 2005, its latest childcare robot and family companion. PaPeRo can read Japanese characters, distinguish between various human faces, and respond to human gestures. The robot has network capabilities and is able to communicate with other PaPeRos. It can also control other electrical home appliances. PaPeRo runs on a Pentium-M 1.6-GHz processor and has 512 Mbytes of memory and a 40-Gbyte harddisk (see

Also, developers at Japan's Okayama University are testing harvesting robots that will give new meaning to the notion of mechanized farming. Mitsuji Monta and several of his colleagues at OU's Laboratory of Agricultural Systems Engineering have developed robots able to harvest a variety of crops, including tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers. The tomato-harvesting robot relies on color CCD cameras to detect ripe (red) tomato based on RGB components. After the robot detects a ripe fruit, its four-fingered prosthetic hand moves toward the tomato, gently takes hold of it, and removes it from the branch with a cutter device. (A video of the robot in action is at

Despite robots' sophisticated visualization technology and highly agile manipulators, sending them into the field or greenhouse remains a challenge. Human experience and judgment about which plants to harvest remain far superior to the ability of any robot. Monta, whose research interest is human-cooperative agricultural-robot systems, believes the answer is telerobotics, which combines the advantages of robotics and human judgment.

Monta is testing a prototype in a greenhouse on the Okayama University campus. A robot equipped with a laser scanner and a color CCD camera generates 3D images and color photos of the target crop. It identifies ripe fruit, calculates its location, and sends the data to the server through a wireless LAN. The operator checks the robot's judgment, modifies it if needed, and sends instructions back to the robot. The robot then proceeds to harvest the fruit as the operator has instructed.

Going wireless

A consortium of Korean companies, universities, and state agencies is testing the world's first wireless, network-based humanlike robots (see The wireless robot program, spearheaded by the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC), leverages Korea's advanced broadband and wireless communications infrastructure. The robots retrieve their intelligence and guidance information from external servers. Announcing the program last year, MIC project manager Oh Sang-rok told reporters in Seoul that Korea would have faced "a debacle" if it tried to compete with Japan in the development of expensive autonomous androids.

"Conventional" androids such as Honda's Asimo and Sony's SDR-4X rely on built-in circuits and software for their intelligence and guidance. Korea's new androids, called ubiquitous robot companions, send data collected by their sensors to a server for processing and then receive instruction on how to act on the information. Later this year, the consortium will start testing three versions of the five-wheeled URC. The tests will be conducted in 64 Korean households in a suburb of Seoul where a broadband convergence network is installed.

The high-end URC, priced at about US$2,500, includes health care monitoring sensors and an Http-based communications module. Owners can monitor their homes by calling the robot by cell phone, asking it to photograph the house. The mid-range version, priced at about US$1,000, has a built-in vacuum cleaner, and can order food via a local information network. A smaller, low-end "edutainment" robot can read books to children and offers English-language studies. It will retail for about US$500.

Along with the three home robots, the consortium also developed robots for post offices and other public spaces. Later this year, the Ministry of Information will install two models in 200 Korean post offices. A female version, the PGR, will greet people and show video clips while they are waiting. The male version, the uPostmate, is equipped with cameras and will guard the post office around the clock. It can detect intruders and capture them by shooting a net. "During a test, the security robot successfully captured an adult male," the Korean news site reported in June.

If the robots pass the testing phase, they will be employed at other governmental agencies and in commercial banks. According to a report in the Korean Times, the smart robots are part of a development program that the MIC believes will lead to self-aware robots able to interact with humans no later than 2015. The URCs will utilize Korea's "ubiquitous network" (the convergence of all communications networks using IPv6), slated for completion in 2010.

Korea's robot program is an ambitious attempt to integrate IT and robot technology. The URCs can read emails that contain the sender's instructions for motion like blowing a kiss or waving a hand. Asked about today's weather, the URCs will say, "Yes, ma'am. Morning lows will be 20 [Celsius], rising to 25 in the afternoon. There is a 60 percent chance of rain." The URCs act on voice commands instructing them to go online and search for data.

Servicing sensor networks

Human users might not be the only beneficiaries of advances in robotics research. Wireless sensor networks also stand to gain. Researchers expect sensor networks and sensor telemetry to create a new generation of information technology, and with it huge opportunities. A group of Japanese companies have formed the IPv6 Sensor Networking Consortium, aimed at creating a business out of networking electric equipment and sensors in buildings, factories, homes, and communities. Singapore unveiled plans to become a "sentient" city by installing a sensor network that will monitor the presence of chemicals, explosives, and other hazardous materials. In the US, scientists have proposed "sprinkling" sensors in remote, forested areas to provide early warnings of wildfires.

More specific projects include Accenture Technology Labs' installation of a sensor network in a California vineyard (see The sensors monitor growing conditions by reporting moisture and humidity levels and the temperature. They can also identify areas that need extra water or more fertilizer, and they provide the growers with a constant digital picture of the physical environment. Also, Intel and British Petroleum have tested a wireless sensor network to provide continuous vibration monitoring of a BP oil tanker's engines. By replacing human inspectors and providing early warnings of problems, the sensors can reduce maintenance costs.

Researchers are looking into merging robotics and sensor network technologies. Gaurav S. Sukhatme of the Computer Science Department at the University of Southern California is studying the potential of having robots drop off nodes or plug holes in sensor networks (see Sukhatme is also involved in USC's Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems "Robomote," a mobile robotic sensor node designed to add computation, sensing, communication, and actuation to a static sensor network (see But the merger of robotics and sensor networks is in its infancy.

Standards for both robotics and sensor networks are in the early stage of development, and Mars Rover-type robots keeping watch on crops and patrolling farms or borders are years away. But sensor networks and robotics address economic, ecological, and demographic imperatives. They can reduce cost, improve the environment, and help alleviate the growing labor shortage caused by aging populations.

New Initiative Aims to Transform Korean Homes

Benjamin Alfonsi

An IT initiative being set forth by the Korean Ministry of Information and Communication is attempting to improve the nation's already advanced technology. The new initiative, called IT839, will introduce new IT services while simultaneously encouraging investment in its network infrastructure.

Targeted at consumers

Many of the proposed IT offerings set forth in IT839's ambitious agenda will be geared toward Korean consumers, who are known for being particularly tech-savvy.

"Korean people have a keen interest in new devices and technology," says Yong-hyun Kwon, deputy director of the ministry's policy bureau. According to the project proposal, the traditional Korean home will be transformed via home networks, embedded software, and wearable PCs into a "pleasant and convenient place with enriching digital experiences."

For instance, the home network service, an at-home suite of IT services including interactive digital TV, video on demand, and e-learning, will be provided to two million Korean households by end of the year. By 2007, estimates hold that 10 million homes, more than half of the country's households, will have home network services.

How will such a far-reaching initiative be funded? The Korean government will offer low-interest loans to encourage private sector investment and deployment of the home network infrastructure. According to Kwon, the single biggest challenge in carrying out the IT839 program lies in encouraging businesses to invest.

"To create vitality in a certain market, the private sector needs to make a strong investment, being confident in market prospects," he says. "However, it's not easy to instill confidence in a specific service when the market is unstable."

Kwon says the Korean government will focus on assuring private companies of market prospects by keeping them well informed about the potential ROI based on market forecasts.

The Korean government also makes no secret about its hope of becoming the world's second largest embedded software producer by 2010. IT839 will encourage the development of software platforms and solutions to be built into an array of consumer devices, including household appliances, cars, and smart phones.

With Korea wanting to quickly inject itself into the market as a key player, time is of the essence. Throughout the next several years, Korea's embedded software industry will carry out plans to develop standards, conduct compliance tests, and deploy pilot projects.

Perhaps Korea's most innovative consumer-centric initiative is its research into the next-generation or wearable PC, which is made of cloth and contains information processing and networking power. It demonstrates Korea's plan to fully integrate IT within traditional Korean industries, such as textiles.

The wearable PC will integrate sensors and human interface technologies, promising to deliver convenience and portability. Standardization efforts will be undertaken to achieve interoperability. According to the plan, prototypes will be developed in 2005, technology standards will be set in 2006, and the product will be put on the market in 2007.

Possible downside?

While the Korean government is admittedly putting its money where its mouth is with respect to advancing its IT scheme, the approach might not work, according to Gartner Research VP, Enterprise and Supply Management Chain, Jeff Woods, who notes that China has similar IT strategies.

Woods cites in particular the example of RFID technology—which factors extensively in IT839's agenda, including plans for a telematics service and a ubiquitous sensor network (USN).

"Throwing a lot of money at advancing the technology side of the equation isn't going to really do that much to push [RFID] technology forward," says Woods. "The problem with using a technology-centric strategy to drive RFID initiatives is that it underestimates the challenges associated with finding and building good business cases for RFID."

According to Woods, for many industries, technology is not the bottleneck stopping the adoption of RFID. The real problem, he says, is figuring out how to appropriately use the technology.

Detractors notwithstanding, IT839 is moving right along its ambitious schedule. For example, Jeju Island, designated as the telematics trial city in August 2004, is currently being provided with telematics services such as travel and traffic information, entertainment listings, MP3 music downloads, and emergency rescue information. And, according to Kwon, planning is underway for commencement of the USN pilot project, with the Korean government working on selecting location before implementation, which is slated for 2006.

Robot platforms

The development of multifunctional robots is capital-intensive, in part because companies produce specialized components in small volumes. Prices for medical robots are in the US$18,000 to 25,000 range. To bring down costs, several Japanese robot makers have developed standardized robot platforms and supporting technology. They hope a standardized platform will do for the robot industry what the IBM XT did for the PC industry.

Industrial giant Fujitsu opened its Humanoid for Open Architecture Platform to developers. The company's Hoap-2 runs on a 700-MHz Intel Pentium III processor and a real-time version of Linux. Fujitsu released information about the android's control systems and software to make it user-programmable. In June 2005, the company unveiled Hoap-3, which runs on the RTLinux operating system over a 1.1-GHz Intel Pentium M.

Several other Japanese companies have opened their proprietary robot technologies. Sony's Open-R platform, which runs the company's own Aperios real-time operating system, is available on a nondisclosure basis for researchers participating in RoboCup, the global competition aimed at fielding a team of robotic soccer players that can beat the human world champion soccer team of 2050.

Toshiba's Open Robot Controller Architecture (ORCA), used in the ApriAttenda and ApriAlpha robots, runs on Hirano Object Request Broker, an open-source distributed-object technology for Java. Horb lets developers change or add functions such as motion controls and image processing to suit their own requirements.

Intel and Microsoft have also targeted the robot market. Intel developed an XScale-based robot system that incorporates IR sensors, 802.11 wireless, and a text-to-speech converter. Microsoft is working on software platforms and embedded systems for the robotics market.

But robots come in different sizes and with different capabilities, so no single robot platform is likely to dominate the industry the way the WinTel platform dominated the PC industry. Paolo Pirjanian, chief scientist of US-based Evolution Robotics, told Japan's Nikkei Electronics Asia last year that the industry is likely to develop different platforms. He pointed out that a low-end robotic vacuum only needs an 8-bit controller, 16 Kbytes of RAM, and IR, while a sophisticated humanoid robot requires multiple high-end CPUs, Mbytes of RAM, gyroscopes, and inertial navigation systems.

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