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As Japan expects labor shortages stemming from its aging society and declining birthrate, anticipation is growing for service robots. There are still many technical challenges remaining to create robots that are symbiotic and supportive to human beings. However, Hitachi sees those challenges as a driving force and has been accelerating its research and development efforts to create a future where people and robots can coexist harmoniously.
There has been renewed and growing interest in robots in Japan where labor shortages are expected to become more severe. Use of robots has been popular, especially in manufacturing, since industrial robots were first introduced commercially in the 1970s. With growing concerns over aging society, service and other non-manufacturing industries are hoping to utilize robots to automate some service tasks and reduce human labor. Hitachi has been at the forefront of cutting-edge research and development in robotics since the earliest stages of industrial robots. Examples of Hitachi's achievements include robots with artificial intelligence and four-legged robots that can function in extreme conditions. Hitachi was early to recognize that there would be growing demand for service robots and launched a development project called EMIEW*1 (Excellent Mobility and Interactive Existence as Workmate) in 2004. The concept behind EMIEW is the "human symbiotic robot" that can coexist and support human activities. In order to realize this concept, EMIEW was designed to have agile mobility to be able to function well in human environments. It was also designed to be able to "talk" with people naturally using voice recognition and high-quality speech synthesis technology. Within a year from beginning the project, the first EMIEW was completed. It was the result of the combined efforts of the Hitachi Group, namely the Mechanical Engineering Research Laboratory,*2 the Central Research Laboratory, and the Design Division. The EMIEW was introduced during the EXPO 2005 AICHI, JAPAN. Street performances with the EMIEW and a human clown entertained and impressed many people.
"EMIEW" debuted at EXPO 2005 AICHI, JAPAN
Hitachi then began developing the EMIEW 2, focusing on safety and practicality. Hitachi revised the development process for the EMIEW 2 to make the robot work more harmoniously with people. First, Hitachi determined its size, weight and moving speed from practical considerations, making the EMIEW 2 lighter and more compact. The voice recognition system was enhanced to be able to recognize human voices even with background noise. Mobility was improved to be able to detect and respond to relatively small differences in heights on uneven floor surfaces while walking. The EMIEW 2 was completed in 2007, designed primarily to perform services as a guide in offices and public spaces. Cutting-edge technologies incorporated in the EMIEW 2 include "object search" technology to recognize and locate objects, searching through a database of images collected from network cameras and the Internet. In order to give EMIEW 2 high-level, intelligence-processing capabilities while keeping its body compact, Hitachi adopted a concept of "Remote Brain Control" for the EMIEW 2. Functions for the robot were divided into two categories: real-time processing for control in activities like running and avoiding obstacles, and remote-information processing for higher-load tasks such as recognition and analysis. In a sense, Hitachi began using the idea of "cloud computing" long before that term was created.
EMIEW 2 is 80 centimeters tall (about 2.6 feet) and weighs 14 kilograms (about 31 pounds). It is lighter and more compact than the original EMIEW.
Cutting-edge technologies nurtured in research and development for EMIEW 2 are paving the way for next-generation projects. One of those key technologies is autonomous moving technology. Hitachi has already commercialized a logistics support robot with autonomous mobility. The robot "Lapi" uses intelligence technology to assess its position and recognize objects in the surrounding environment. In addition, it uses maneuvering technology to avoid collisions while moving.
Hitachi has also been developing vehicle-type autonomous moving robots that people can call up using a mobile device and get a ride from a designated place to their destination. The robot named "ROPITS" has been in ongoing testing on public roads in the Tsukuba City in Ibaraki Prefecture since 2011. It is hoped that these kinds of robots can become vehicles to provide safe and comfortable short-distance rides for the elderly in Japan's aging society.
"Lapi" logistics support robot moves autonomously without infrastructure
"ROPITS" vehicle-type transportation service robot is involved in ongoing tests
Hitachi is currently working on further improvements for EMIEW 2. One area is diverse interactive communication technology to recognize different expressions for the same idea and to respond correctly and smoothly. Another area is safer and smoother autonomous moving technology that can avoid accidents even when people suddenly appear from a blind spot. Innovations in interactive communication technology are making the dialog between people and robots more natural. Innovations in autonomous moving technology can be applied to autonomous road transportation in the future. Hitachi believes that the cutting-edge technologies from EMIEW 2 will stimulate groundbreaking innovation in various fields. Research and development is an effort to nurture seeds of innovation. Hitachi will continue to contribute to innovation through research and development of human symbiotic robots not only to find solutions for issues surrounding demographic changes but also to make our world a safer, more secure and more comfortable place to live.