What lies behind the growing focus on robots of late?
Over the years, the robot mainstream consisted of those built for manufacturing fields, which were mainly utilized in plant assembly lines. Today, however, rather than manufacturing as such, high expectations are being directed at efforts to robots in service industries; nursing care and medical services; agriculture; infrastructure, disaster response and construction; and numerous other fields closely linked to our everyday lives. Behind this trend can be found the social issues of an aging population and labor shortages in the wake of Japan's "super-graying society." To find solutions for this situation, the Japanese government is positioning the upcoming five years as a so-called "concentrated robot revolution implementation period," with the public and private sectors joining forces to cultivate robotics into a genuine growth industry.
According to estimates based on the 2012 Trend Survey on the Robot Industry Market (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), Japan's domestic market for robots for use in conventional manufacturing sector secondary industries is predicted to grow to \1 trillion in 2018, and then expand some 1.5-fold to \1.5 trillion by 2024. Compared to this, the agriculture-related robot market for primary industries is projected to chart rapid growth of 5 times, while the domestic market for tertiary industry service and distribution robots will expand 7-fold during the same period.
As commercial business undertakings, Panasonic mounters, welding robots and other robotic products in the manufacturing field have already attained globally competitive industrial applications. At the same time, the company is now mobilizing fusions of its wide array of products and technologies as a driving force in the development and commercialization of robots designed to provide people with daily living and lifestyle assistance. The fields in which the expectations of society run high for creative applications of such robots include service industries; nursing care and medical services; agriculture; infrastructure, disaster response and construction; and other examples.
The three definitions of "Robot"
The robots mentioned here, based on the definitions of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, consist of intelligent machine systems equipped with capabilities in the following three categories:
- "Sensors" serving to measure information related to objects of attention
- "intelligence and control" used to perform recognition and assessments based on the measured information
- "motors and other drive-train systems" for moving as the result of those assessments
If equated to human beings, this can be said to apply to the respective functions of the eyes (measuring cognition), brain (intelligence), hands (manipulation) and legs (mobility).
Let's explain these functions as they apply to the tomato-picking robot currently under development by the Panasonic Production Engineering Division. This robot is being perfected with the goal of automating the tomato harvesting work in greenhouses conventionally conducted by hand. Proving tests are currently underway at a large-scale farm in Japan.
Tomato-picking robot to automate sophisticated harvesting work
For the harvesting work, the first step is for cameras and range image sensors used in place of human eyes to detect each color, shape, position and other information about the tomatoes (measuring recognition). For the tomatoes measured in this way, a program confirms the tomato color and harvesting feasibility with a manipulator, thereby forming intellectual assessments of the actual picking (intelligence). Once those steps are complete, a harvest manipulator developed to leave no scratches on the fruit is activated (manipulation).
To efficiently pick tomatoes and other delicate, easily damaged fruits, a round manipulator is used to sever the small stems connecting each separate piece of clusters of fruits much like bunches of grapes, and carefully harvest them free of damage. This system functions by grasping the fruit and stems separately, then applying appropriate force to separate and detach them. The method was developed from meticulous studies of the picking motions practiced by human beings in the field.
Guaranteeing the safety critical for robots to maintain harmony with people
Moves are well underway to advance beyond robots used to perform conventional work in plants and other specified locations, including development of models for use in human activity spheres, as well as going on to furnish support in other aspects of everyday life. The single most necessary phase of this evolution is to ensure human safety.
ISO 13482, issued in February 2014, is the international safety standard for such daily life support robots. Panasonic participated in an international conference held to study the drafting of ISO 13482, and engaged in the formulation of this standard pertaining to global robot safety, furthermore becoming the first in the world to receive this certification. In addition, seeking to hammer out detailed safety standards for different genres of robots not fully covered under the provisions of ISO 13482, Panasonic joined with related manufacturers in preparing "JIS B 8446" - a Japan-specific industrial standard. Our plan is to make a proposal to the International Organization for Standardization to include this pioneering safety standard in the ISO framework, thereby empowering Japan to play a leading role in the international standardization of robots.
As a manufacturer of consumer electronics, Panasonic has perfected an impressive assortment of technologies used to develop products that come into direct contact with people. We also have top global level technologies and a reliable track record that have allowed us to participate in the creation of safety standards from the stance of a major Japanese company. Working from this solid foundation, Panasonic continues to pursue engineering progress structured to support the safety of robots built to exist in harmony with people as a core technology in its ongoing development of robotic excellence.
Development as solutions business targeting social issues
Looking ahead, Panasonic will continue to endeavor from the solid foundation of its expertise in robotic component devices, safety-support technology and other inherent strengths, while strengthening the three key robot elements of vision, decision-making and mobility in spearheading new advances always rooted in the customer's perspective. The robots created through this formula will not be completed as single isolated units, but rather linked to telecommunications networks via information and communications technology, able to engage in various types of exchange with other machines through the Internet of Things, and loaded with smarter AI technology so as to "see," "think" and "move." In this way, the Panasonic vision is to expand these exploits into wide-ranging daily life support fields as a solutions business for effectively addressing the issues faced by today's society.
Toward robotic technology that is safe, reliable, gentle and fun
The debut of robots engineered to function in harmony with human beings can be traced back to around the year 2000. While there was a stance oriented toward development aiming for value creation at the time, it was not until around 2010 that development efforts started moving into workplace environments to thoroughly analyze actual work processes. This shift occurred as a result of the realization that the most important challenge for us was to truly understand what exact troubles our customers were encountering. With robots still far from truly disseminating worldwide, difficulties exist insofar as many customers have trouble envisioning just what robots can do for them. We will be moving to showcase prototypes and otherwise convey clear images of the cutting edge in robotics, while it will also be vital to foster the aptitude to run through single Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle as speedily as possible.
Likewise, it is key to realize that robots are not single, self-contained units. They only pave the way to genuine value as solutions when they are successfully partnered networks and other devices, and integrated into systems through ICT and AI technologies. In that sense, what we should be pursuing is not the robot industry as such, but rather a solutions business in its own right. For its part, Panasonic has compiled a rich array of sophisticated technology through devices, creation of products interfacing with people as a manufacturer of consumer electronics and on other fronts. The company enjoys strength in its ability to strategically fuse numerous different technologies in pioneering the development of robots in wide-ranging fields. As we continue to forge ahead, with technologies ensuring the highest level of safety as our base, we aim to develop robotics technology and grow the robot business in a way that establishes a place for robots in harmony alongside people with safety and security--as a presence that offers people kindness and smiles, and that on both a physical and mental level draws closer to our lives.
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