Robotic machinery in factories or assembly lines is not an unusual sight. But seeing a robot behind the wheel of a heavy machinery vehicle is another story. It may soon become a reality.
Engineers at a construction firm in Saga City have spent 3 years developing a robot that can operate such equipment.
The selling point of the humanoid device is that it works with existing machinery. When a disaster strikes, it can quickly be shipped out and set up.
The robot moves the levers of an earthmover with its claws and legs. It transmits video via a camera on its head.
The robot allows people to operate machinery safely from a distance. There are high hopes for its commercialization. The fact it can work with equipment already at hand makes it relatively cheap.
Team leader Kazuki Sumi, managing director of Fujiken, was a childhood fan of the Astro Boy cartoon. He still dreams of making robots that contribute to society. He consulted with specialists and has built several prototypes of the machine.
"We often work at disaster sites where rocks can fall on us from above," Sumi said. "So our first priority is to create a robot that can work under hazardous conditions."
Sumi has taken the robot to a company in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo, that rents out construction equipment.
One of the company workers found it hard to operate. He tried moving the machine's arm, but can't get it to work smoothly.
"Is it possible to make the rotating and vertical movements a little slower?" the worker asks. "It's really hard to control."
The reason why it is difficult to handle is because it's set up to show off its speed, and it is responding too quickly to commands. An engineer is able to reprogram it on the spot.
After two hours, it's ready for full-scale testing. The rental company manager wants to see for himself if the robot is ready for actual use.
He finds he can move the shovel any way he wants.
"I was able to control the machine as if I were operating it directly from the driver's seat," said section manager Hisayuki Sasahara. "I think it'll be good for excavations at sites where a secondary disaster is likely."
After the demonstration, Sumi took questions such as whether the robot can be used on steep slopes or in other unstable conditions.
"Our number-one aim is to create a robot for use in all real-life situations," Sumi said. "We will continue to refine this model to get as close as we can to that goal."
As machines like this become more functional, the day approaches when workers can do dangerous jobs with greater confidence.