The auto-industry’s ever-so-vital robots
Don’t stop reading! There is another aspect to developments from within the motoring scene, states Iain Robertson, that possess significantly further-reaching benefits that might affect many of us in the future.
Away from the flashy, chrome-and-glass sales palaces, where some slime-ball has already reached into your back pocket, stolen your wallet and is parting you from your hard-earneds faster than you can say ‘Automobili Lamborghini’, while over-selling zealously on the insurance and finance fronts, is another world of very special automotive treats.
With any good fortune, you might have witnessed, if not in-person, at least on one of the nation’s more popular TV shows (like BBC TV’s ‘QI’), an amazing feat of automotive engineering. It is known as ASIMO. Developed by Honda, since 1986, the acronym stands for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility. It is what might be termed a ‘gift’ of the now deceased founder of Honda, Mr Soichiro Honda, who was a tremendous social benefactor, to the world.
To meet ASIMO is a thrill of unbounded delights. Around the size of an early-teens child, this amazing humanoid robot is intended to demonstrate how robotics can be used to help the elderly, or the infirm, to deal with their problems. Yet, equally, its future might lie in moving harmful chemicals, or fighting fires, where a human might otherwise be put at severe risk, perhaps even death.
Naturally, the technology used to create this talking, walking, self-contained, friendly robot might have even more profound functions in making the lame mobile, or providing its individual senses, even faculties, to those not in possession of them. When I met ASIMO, the child in me emerged. It said, “Hello Iain. Nice to meet you.” and extended its fully articulated hand and arm to give me a gentle handshake. To then watch the robot run, like a human, kick a football accurately, like a human, to tackle steps, like a human, and to balance and take every obstacle placed in front of, or alongside it, in its stride, like a human, is not just remarkably touching but also surprisingly emotive. I shall neither forget the encounter, nor the implications of it.
Yet, Honda is not the only pioneer from the automotive scene. Toyota robots are being put to work in hospitals currently, to aid in the rehabilitation of patients with mobility and balance issues. Known as the Walk Training Assist and Balance Training Assist partner robots, they have started clinical trials in Japan, which will soon extend to more than 30 medical facilities across the country.
Although the development of the robots commenced a couple of decades after those of Honda, in 2007, in collaboration with the Fujita Health University Hospital in Toyoake, they are not dissimilar in purpose, although their styling is more mechanically-directed. The first Toyota robots were installed a matter of days ago in the Ukai Rehabilitation Hospital, in Aichi, very close to Toyota Motor Corporation’s headquarters.
Large-scale trials will help to evaluate the effectiveness of the robots and Toyota is accelerating its development programme, with the aim of a commercial launch at the earliest possible opportunity. Among the first groups of people to benefit are those suffering from lower limb paralysis. By providing a support function, they can learn to walk as normally as possible. Attached to a paralysed leg, the Toyota rehab-robots help users to swing their legs forwards, while also straightening the knees and supporting the users’ body weight.
The leg mount has a lifting mechanism, which reduces the weight burden of the robot on the user and the level of robotic assistance can be varied, according the degree of rehabilitation required. By providing real-time feedback on performance to the user, via both audio and video means, the experience becomes usefully and encouragingly empathetic.
Alternative variants can be used to support people unable to maintain balance through an enjoyable rehabilitation process that uses a video game-style presentation. Toyota is renowned for its annual ‘mobility demonstration’ programmes, where trainee engineers at the company are encouraged to engage with the latest technology. While some of the end products can look very weird, the core purpose is to create balance, where it might be required but is not present, or simply to innovate in mobility terms.
By utilising the same inverted two-wheel technology that has been featured on Toyota’s Winglet personal transport assistance robot, the user’s forward/rearward and left/right body movements are linked to a character in a video game. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to the dance programmes on a Wii console. Tennis, skiing and rodeo game modes are available, all of them helping to train the user to shift their own centre of gravity, in different directions, while maintaining balance. The level of game difficulty is set in line automatically with the degree of rehabilitation required.
The bottom-line for this pair of Japanese movers-and-shakers is that mobility demands more than four seats and tyres to be effective for everybody. If the technology can be put to more beneficial use, by being lent to the medical arena, then the greater are the ramifications. While Honda’s route has been humanoid, in contrast to that pursued by Toyota, the results are still exceptional and prove that automotive life exists beyond motorcars.