“To Further Human Creativity”
- Developing a Novel Robot that Closely Assists Humans -
In a bid to further expand and accelerate its robotics business, OMRON has taken up the challenging endeavor of developing industrial robots that are completely different from existing models both in terms of hardware configuration and usability under the banner of “creating robots of a new dimension.” To kick start this epoch-making initiative, a new department named “Voyager Project” was launched in April 2022, named after the scientific project that sends space probes to seek star systems beyond our solar system. We were fortunate enough to have the Voyager Project Department’s General Manager, Tetsuharu Fukushima, as well as Technical Profession Tomomichi Sugihara of the Robotics Technology Management Department, talk us through the future OMRON intends to guide us to with its research initiatives for developing robotics technology.
These days, it is common to hear news reports about pilot experiments using service robots that perform such services as automated transportation and audio guidance. What do you think about the proliferation of robots in general?
Fukushima：Robots have become commonplace in factory automation, and OMRON’s robots are in service globally. However, because many industrial robots move fast, we need to set safety fences or provide a mechanism that uses safety sensors or the like to stop the robots when a person approaches. It is also necessary to manufacture hands according to what the robot handles. As such, those industrial robots are currently used exclusively in processes where the same tasks are repeated, for example, a picking process, where the robot picks components up, or a welding process.
Meanwhile, robots are making their entry into Japanese homes, often disguised as vacuum cleaners and washing machines that assist humans in ways that differ from industrial robots. So, we cannot say that robots have become widespread in homes. We believe this is because robots are not intelligent or dexterous enough to handle versatile jobs.
Sugihara：At present, what is required most from robots that work at places like production plants or distribution warehouses is to position parts. That is, they translate each operation into a positional command, such as “Transport from Point A to Point B” and “Weld material A onto this spot,” and execute them. However, it is difficult to accurately specify a position of a work object in a non-industrial environment. It is not even always possible to express operations with positional information alone. This being the case, applications of robots are still limited.
The New Model of Robots OMRON Aspires to Create
Fukushima：OMRON wishes to create a “world where humans and robots create harmony,” rather than “humans work around robots.” To make this a reality, robots must have manual dexterity and flexible motion that allows them to function in any situation and with aesthetics that blend well with people. We must also be able to teach them how to move in the way humans teach humans. These are challenging tasks for robots developed with existing technology-based advancements, making it necessary to realize a robot built with a new architecture.
Sugihara：My wish is to build a robot that is clever enough to behave flexibly regardless of where it is used, rather than merely repeating routine jobs. To this end, we need a brand new system for information processing, that is, one that does not rely on the accuracy of the information on the position and shape of objects and achieves a high level of objectives while promptly responding to changes in the dynamic relationship with the environment in which the robot and its work objects are placed. This involves not only software but the robot’s actual hardware.
In what fields do you think robots will shine going forward? And what do you think we need to solve to make that happen?
Fukushima：I would like to uncage robots first so they can move in the same space as humans, and I want humans to focus on more essential tasks that only humans can complete. In surgery using a laparoscope, for example, a doctor must be accompanied by an assistant doctor called a scopist, whose job is to hold a heavy endoscope for a long time. We do have surgical robots that perform telesurgery, but they are extremely expensive and so are not very widespread. If we can develop robots that assist doctors, I believe we can reduce the scopist’s burden, enabling them to focus on more essential tasks as a doctor.
And I want the robot to stand by the patient to work with doctors or support the patient. For instance, I think it would be meaningful if a robot could support a temporarily immobile patient. Suppose you’re receiving nursing care. You might feel ashamed to ask nurses to do frequent small tasks. It would be interesting if we could create a world where robots support persons with physical disabilities on such occasions or offer mental care just like service dogs do, based on the psychological affinity Japanese feel with robots. Interestingly, I hear some users of “cleaning robots,” which are gaining popularity here, put a doll on them and cherish them as family members.
Sugihara：I guess the endgame is a world where everyone has “another body of their own”. I would love to see robots everywhere as physical doubles: They do heavy or hazardous work that “nobody would like to do” but “needs to be done,” serve as extra hand(s) or leg(s) that are needed for people to accomplish what they wish to do, or function as another body of one’s own and can be conveniently used to realize one’s unique ideas. Obviously, there is so much work to do: How can we make a body that is durable and moves freely, is capable of smoothly operating objects that it sees for the first time in an environment it has never encountered, or has a brain that comprehends complicated work procedures?
So far, OMRON’s research and development teams have engaged in research into control algorithms for high-speed handling of tasks(1) and determination of task completion using kinesthetic sensor signals(2), while proposing a novel tactile sensor using proximity sensors(3).Other than the development of algorithms and sensors, what technologies do you think you will need to develop?
Sugihara：A robot is an information processing system that physically interacts with the real world. As such, it is, of course, important to come up with individual technologies, but I would say it is also necessary to consider how we should process information as a whole to have a robot perform advanced work or what functions individual control algorithms and sensors should play in such an architecture. Our aim is to realize robots of a new architecture by utilizing a diverse range of technological assets that have been cultivated and technologies to be developed by OMRON on top of these technologies.
(1) Masayoshi Abe, Shinji Kawakami, Akinobu Kanai, Yumi Saitoh, Realization of the High-Speed Robot Manipulation for Variety Parts by Data Abstraction and Simplified Control, OMRON TECHNICS, 2022, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp 35-45
(2) Kentaro Oki, Shunsuke Matoba, Kanji Takanishi, Development of a Device that Automatically Judges the Completion of Tasks Using a Recurrent Neural Network with Industrial Robot’s Tactile Sensor Signal Serving as Input, Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Institute of Systems, Control and Information Engineers, 2021, Institute of Systems, Control and Information Engineers, Vol. 65, ROMBUN No. TS09-12
Keep your eyes on novel robots that closely assists humans made by OMRON!
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Junichi Sekine, Assistant Senior General Manager, Technology and Intellectual Property HQ, concurrently General Manager, Robotics R&D Center, OMRON Corporation一
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