In the summer of 2009, tech enthusiasts and travelers from all over the world gathered on the man-made shores of Odaiba for a single, unified purpose: to glimpse the first life-size replica of a RX78 Gundam—a Transformers-style robot from a popular Japanese animation series complete with glowing green eyes, moving head and punctuated bursts of venting steam.
Only in Japan does the image of a larger-than-life robot resting idly in a park against a backdrop of modern skyscrapers seem less like a fantastic image out of a science fiction movie, and more like a part of the everyday workings of ordinary life. Standing at a whopping 18 meters (59 ft), the giant robot was estimated to have attracted over four million tourists over the course of a short, two-month exhibit.
Fast forward to summer 2011. After a short stint outside of Bandai’s factory in Shizuoka, organizers have returned the now dismantled Gundam to Odaiba by popular demand. This time around, thousands of enthusiasts have returned in order to get up close and personal with the individual pieces of the original robot. Most opt to pose for a picture whilst sitting inside of its gigantic robotic hand. A few stations away, in the futuristic halls of the aptly named Miraikan (roughly meaning “Museum of the Future”) lives the world’s most famous humanoid robot. Everyday for two, ten-minute demonstrations, Honda’s ASIMO—which standing at 130 cm (4.3 ft) tall and weighing in at 54 kg (119 lb), vaguely resembles a miniature astronaut—captivates spectators of all ages as it walks, runs, responds to questions, banters with staff and even waves at audience members.
From miniature battery-operated robot mascots designed to run triathlons in Hawaii to robotic dogs capable of playing soccer, Japan has long captured the world’s imagination as an international ‘tech mecca.’ And as pop culture icons such as Astroboy and Doraemon prove—robots are as much a part of Japanese science as they are a part of its cultural identity. So much so, that it comes as no real surprise when a Japanese company or researcher steps onto the world stage as the creator of the latest technological innovations.
What is a surprise is when they don’t.
A Conspicuous Absence
As the initial shock following the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami subsided and the nation refocused its attention on the crisis unfolding at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, the stage seemed set for Japanese robots (and by association, Japan’s technological prowess) to shine. Given the increasingly dangerous conditions at the plant, it seemed unthinkable that the world’s foremost ‘Robot Nation’ wouldn’t showcase its supposed arsenal of advanced robots, ready to perform emergency work where humans could not.
Instead, TEPCO workers first turned to the PackBot, a remote-controlled robot built and developed by U.S.-based robotics firm iRobot, perhaps more famously known for its popular house cleaning robot Rumba. Where workers could not go, the PackBot and other robots measured radiation levels, temperature, as well as took photos and cleared debris. Yet as the days passed and news about the courageous workers dubbed by the media as the ‘Fukushima Fifty’ continued to dominate headlines, Japanese robots remained nowhere to be seen.
Now, roughly seven months after the earthquake, it would be misleading to suggest that Japanese robots and researchers have yet to contribute toward ongoing efforts in Fukushima. According to Satoshi Tadokoro, a robotics specialist at Tohoku University known for his expertise in rescue and disaster robots, Japan-made robots have been active in Fukushima since the end of March in the form of 60 remotely operated, unmanned construction system units boasting efficiency rates of 80 percent. However, he also noted that limited coverage in the media has lead to greater confusion amongst the public.
Since June, another Japanese robot called Quince, a robot jointly developed by Tadokoro and the Chiba Institute of Technology, has also helped workers in the efforts to work toward a cold shutdown of the Fukushima reactors. Capable of remote monitoring and light manipulator tasks, Quince has at times, been utilized to obtain readings in areas the PackBot cannot reach due to its greater mobility.
While overshadowed by more immediate concerns such as providing aid for victims and radiation contamination scares, the initial absence of Japan-made robots during the crisis and its direct aftermath did not go unnoticed. While economists publicly debated the course of the nation’s recovery, another unanswered question lingered in the minds of many Japan watchers—where were the Japanese robots?
The Robot Nation
“Japan has been regarded as a leader in the robotics industry both inside and outside Japan—a fact that researchers have been proud of since before the quake,” says Minoru Asada, a Professor of the Department of Adaptive Machine Systems at Osaka University and internationally renowned robotics expert.
Though the first commercial ‘high-tech’ robot was first introduced in the 1980s, Japan’s robotics industry can be traced all the way back to the late 1960s. Since then, Japan’s reputation for both technology and industry has been cemented through product innovations ranging from the Sony Walkman to the Toyota Prius. According to statistics from the International Federation of Robots, in 2010, Japan was the most automated nation in the world, boasting a robot density of 306 robots per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry. Moreover, in 2006, a report from the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) projected that Japan’s robotics industry would exceed an estimated six trillion yen by the year 2025.
So given the numbers and Japan’s status as an industry leader, the early absence of Japanese robots at Fukushima becomes even more perplexing. Surely, wouldn’t one of the world’s most technologically advanced, robot savvy nations be prepared for exactly such an occasion?
Thus far, the general consensus among experts is that the original lack of Japanese robots had less to do with actual preparedness, and more to do with a lack of practical experience in addition to differing approaches between Japan and the West in regards to robotics research.
According to Asada, Japanese researchers had thought about developing rescue robots for nuclear accidents with the KYOKUGEN SAGYOU (Advanced Robot for Hazardous Environment) robot over 20 years ago. However, believing that such accidents were unlikely, the government and METI instead shifted project’s focus toward developing robots for power plant maintenance. While the project went on to produce a number of robots, none went on to actually participate in any drills.
“Simply speaking, Japanese robotics has lacked sufficient practice in real life situations, even though the level of the technology is quite advanced,” explains Asada. “TEPCO adopted iRobot’s robots first because U.S. robots have been used so often on the battlefield.”
“I know that researchers and research rescue robots were waiting for a dispatch call after the earthquake. It might have been TEPCO’s decision not to use unreliable research robots that were not well documented or cataloged. Or it might simply be a lack of information at the front line about available Japanese research robots,” agrees Yoshihiko Nakamura, a Professor at the Department of Mechano-Informatics at the University of Tokyo. “The U.S. robots were not only well documented and cataloged, but also suggested by the Japanese government in accordance with an offer from the U.S. government.”
Another factor was that military research is effectively prohibited in Japanese universities. Conversely, the U.S. funds roughly $660 billion into hi-tech companies to fund military research. The PackBot, for instance, was deployed for a number of life-saving tasks in Afghanistan before it ever landed in Fukushima. The result is that while Japan excels at creating industrial, civil engineering and entertainment-based robots, the U.S. has the advantage in fields such as aerospace, exploration and nuclear power robots.
“The link between advanced robotics research and military industries in Japan is at the very minimum,” says Nakamura. “Therefore, if the military business in Japan is closed and already matured, business opportunities in military technology are not attractive for small industries. The deployable robots for disasters and incidents could have been equipped if guided by national policy as they were in France and Germany after the Chernobyl incident. However, there has been no visible robot market in Japan led by military demands or such policy initiatives.”
Instead, Japanese researchers have focused their attentions on developing consumer robots designed to assist in everyday tasks in order to usher in a more Jetsons-esque vision of the future, where robots both coexist and collaborate with humans.
Industry of the Future
In 2005, 340 teams of amateur and veteran robot developers spanning 31 countries gathered in Osaka to participate in that year’s RoboCup conference—an experimental, project founded by Japanese robotics experts aiming to build a team of 11 humanoid robots capable of winning against a champion FIFA World Cup soccer team. On the sidelines of the event, a team of Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog, wowed spectators and garnered positive buzz with their capability to learn, adapt and play competitive soccer games.
Yet one short year later, Sony pulled the plug on the popular robot pet. Retailing for more than 200,000 yen, the Aibo never quite managed to break into the mainstream market. Similarly, Secom’s My Spoon robot, a mechanical arm designed to help elderly and disabled people eat, has also struggled to make an impact despite its healthcare advantages due to its 400,000 yen price tag. While the untapped potential of Japanese robotics is undeniably exciting, analysts indicate that key to harnessing it lies with commercial viability. As technologically amazing (and undoubtedly useful) as ASIMO, Aibo and other robots like them are, the fact is that few can afford to pay their hefty price tags—especially in a struggling economy.
“Japan has only industrial robots and robot ‘toys’ as an industry. Some companies are struggling to open new areas, but are not very successful. Therefore, there are many types of research robots, but [they] are not commercially available,” explains Tadokoro.
“[There] is the lack of dynamism to grow small businesses, which was seen 50 years ago in companies like Sony, Panasonic, Honda and so on. The major industries are too large to wait for the growth of business in markets under $100 million, even if they have the technology within the company,” agrees Nakamura. “The industries that have robots as their main business are mostly for factory automation in automobile companies and are less aggressive for new applications of unclear business opportunities.”
Furthermore, experts agree that economic challenges stemming from the events of March 11 will likely pose new challenges for researchers as they try to turn their futuristic visions into reality. To what extent, however, still remains unclear.
Following a strong year of growth in 2008, statistics from the Japan Robot Association indicate the Japanese robotics market plummeted 53.6 percent due to the effects of Lehman Shock in 2009. While the market has made significant strides toward recovery since then, the global economic downturn has left its imprint on the industry. For the first time, Japan slipped one spot to the world’s second largest robotics market in 2010 despite increasing production by 103.9 percent from 2009. Neighbor and economic rival South Korea claimed the top spot, with significant investment in China boosting the country’s ranking to fourth place.
“Industrial robots were definitely affected by the current recession. Its impact on research innovation of service robots is unknown, however, because such robots are developed by governmental funding, and are only research robots. Any serious effects would take place from the next fiscal year starting in April,” says Tadokoro. “As for the response robots, the situation is foggy. Research will go forward, but I do not know what first responder organizations and military will decide.”
“The earthquake struck Japanese industry supply chains, including the automobile industry and caus[ed] their current hardship in regards to sales. This then affected the robotics industry, whose main customers are based in the automobile industry. The economic recession stemming from not only the earthquake, but also global financial instability, will force the government and the industries to cut research budgets in the short term,” says Nakamura.
Despite the short-term setbacks, industry experts are quick to point out that they remain focused on the future and are committed for the long haul. Undeterred by negative publicity, Japanese robotics experts formed the Robotics Task Force for Anti-Disaster (ROBOTAD), a community of volunteers dedicated to discussing and exchanging ideas to utilize robots for recovery efforts in Tohoku. Additionally, researchers are also keen on continuing ambitious experimental projects aimed at pushing boundaries and fostering innovation.
“The leading industries conducting future robotics research will continue their investments as far as I understand,” asserts Nakamura, who also serves as ROBOTAD Anchorman alongside both Asada and Tadokoro. “For this reason, activities pursuing advanced robot technologies have not been affected for now, and will maintain their focus toward building social applications for robots.”
“In spring 2013, a new town will be opened just north of the JR Osaka station, and I had a plan to develop a RoboCity CoRE (Center of RT Experiments),” says Asada. “But due to the quake and strong yen, some companies gave up investing in such experiments with us.”
RoboCity CoRE, Asada explains, is an experimental joint research project developed by the city of Osaka with help from Osaka University professors aimed at building inner city labs for symbiotic experiments between humans and robots—a sort of ‘future city’ where researchers, artists and companies can collaborate on new technological developments and ideas.
“A non-industrial robotics market has not been established, yet. Therefore, we need some experiments that are open to public like RoboCup to test how future robot products can be accepted by society,” says Asada.
“The Fukushima nuclear power plants will take multiple decades to decommission,” says Nakamura. “New technologies developed while decommissioning these plants must be retained for the future disasters and incidents. The international network and collaboration developed through these efforts among scientists and engineers are essential for this goal.”