Panasonic recently held a seminar where they outlined plans for their robotics division, as well as discuss the issue of safety standards. Panasonic is actively developing robotics for the health care needs of the future (such as their Robotic Bed), and is considering developing businesses in two other primary areas: the convenience of networked appliances in the home; and improved automation while reducing energy consumption in factories. But Panasonic is quick to point out that their robots are not designed to replace human workers but rather to assist them, and that safety standards must be developed and improved. Interestingly, slides showing conceptual future scenarios included autonomous carts, power-assist suits, humanoid gardeners, and a 4-legged personal mobility device:
For the time being they are focusing on health care as it is considered the most profitable industry at the moment, as there are many possible robotics applications in that field. For example, consider that there are thousands of drugs in use and how busy hospital staff can be. A robot that reduces drug dispensing errors will improve patient safety, and field trials are already being conducted at Matsushita Group Memorial Hospital.
Some may remember Panasonic’s Transfer Assist Robot from a couple years ago. More a machine than a robot, it was designed to help caregivers lift patients in and out of bed. But what they discovered is that patients don’t want to be dependent on other people to do this, which is what led to the Robotic Bed. The Robotic Bed not only gives an elderly or disabled person the freedom to get in and out of bed on their own, but it reduces the workload of the caregiver. Panasonic is already working on reducing the width of the wheelchair section of the Robotic Bed to less than that of standard wheelchairs (65cm).
Another example is the Hospital Assist Cart – a robotic cart that can attach to a variety of storage units for transporting food, clothing, and medicine. Panasonic hopes that one day the robot will be able to help people like a dog by fetching things for them, as well as attaching to a seat unit to function as a standard electric wheelchair. The cart has a swiveling handle bar so that it can be controlled from the front or back and has a universal connector to facilitate linking it to various equipment.
Panasonic then gave a quick tour of their Robot Open Lab to show off some of the robots in action, which included the PorterBot (for carrying luggage), Socio (a production assistant robot), Amulet Robot (destination guide robot), Bed Transporter (specific to hospital beds), Hospital Delivery Robot (carried linens during field trials at a hotel in 2008). Other robots included Tokyo University IRT Lab’s Household Dish-washing robot (now equipped with the Robot of the Year 2008 4-fingered hand), a design mock-up of a dual-armed robotic cart, and demonstrations of the Robotic Bed.
Posters outlined the stages of the robot business from 2008 to 2015: factory automation, pharmacy automation, hospital automation, social support, and finally home automation. A major hurdle to robotics in the business and home sectors is the need for new, robust safety standards. SONY faced similar problems back in 1999 when it introduced the AIBO (robot dog) to market since there were no standards to speak of. But Panasonic is optimistic that by 2025 a complete harmony between humans and robots is feasible.
[source: Impress Robot Watch (JP)]