A mechanical arm that picks 120 items a minute from a conveyor belt won Japan's Robot of the Year award yesterday, defeating a dozen other flashier finalists, including a walking humanoid, a firefighter robot and a transparent torso for simulating surgery.
The Japanese government prize, announced at a ceremony at a Tokyo hall, is the latest effort in this nation's campaign to trumpet its robotics technology as the road to growth.
But the message was clear that utility and business, rather than entertainment or academia, are at the forefront of Japan's new robotic push.
The entries in yesterday's government-sponsored contest ranged from the educational Mindstorms robot software and robot parts from the Danish toy-maker Lego Group to an industrial robot from Fuji Heavy Industries - maker of Subaru cars - that resembled a container-on-wheels that could lug 200 kg of pharmaceutical goods.
But the three assembly-line mechanical arms from Fanuc, this year's winner, were distinguished for their practicality. They are already being used at food and pharmaceutical plants, where sanitation is critical and human error must be avoided, said Ryo Nihei, a Fanuc manager.
Swiveling in an almost manic frenzy, the arms quickly but accurately analyzed camera data of little square pieces scattered randomly on a swiftly moving conveyor belt. The arms picked up the items, using suction cups that blew air in and out at their tips. They then worked together to neatly place them in rows in boxes.
Concerns about food safety have been growing in Japan following a spate of scandals involving makers using old or cheaper ingredients, and falsely labeling products to mislead consumers.
The Fanuc robots have no exposed wiring for easy washing and sanitizing, Nihei said. They also work tirelessly for 24 hours straight. And they don't misbehave.
"The trend these days is to try to avoid having human workers at all. People can get dirty and introduce unwanted objects," he said. He didn't say which companies are using the robotic arms.
Among the other finalists in the contest was a transparent body with complex intertwining rubbery tubing inside for honing doctors' skills for surgery on blood vessels in a simulation developers at Nagoya University say can be tailor-made for each patient.
Tugging too hard on the catheter in the make-believe blood vessel elicits a yelp in an electronic voice from the robot: "That doesn't feel good."
The robot, called Eve, sells for 250,000 yen ($2,200).
"We made it affordable because we want as many people to take advantage of this as possible," says Seiichi Ikeda, who heads the university-backed venture.
Machinery-maker Komatsu showed a fire-extinguishing robot built like an armored tank that can be remotely controlled to go near possibly explosive and other dangerous places to spew 5,000 liters of water as far as 100 m - more than three times the distance of a human fireman.
The robot prizes are in its second year. Last year, a wheeled automated vacuum cleaning robot won the top.
Source: China Daily/Agencies