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The researchers at Riken and Tokai Rubber’s joint laboratory RTC (RIKEN-TRI Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research) haven’t been twiddling their thumbs since the unveiling of the nursing assistant robot RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance, which was itself an upgrade of Riken’s RI-MAN).  They’ve announced a new version of the robot, which is even better at picking up and carrying bedridden patients of up to 80kg (176 lbs), which is 19kg (41 lbs) more than the first RIBA could handle.

But RIBA-II’s main claim to fame is its ability to lift a patient from a floor-level futon.  This required the introduction of a powerful new joint that lets RIBA-II bend deeply at the waist.  It can then transfer the patient to a wheelchair (and back again), saving nurses everywhere from this exhausting task an average of 40 times a day.  While carried in RIBA-II’s soft arms, a nurse can physically guide the robot by the arm thanks to its Smart Rubber sensors, which are the world’s first capacitive-type sensors made entirely from rubber.  It has them on its chest, upper arms, forearms, and hands.  And patients need not worry about getting pinched in the arm joints thanks to a thick layer of soft rubber.

Underneath its cutesy exterior is a pretty serious robot

Additionally, the robot can now be told where to go through a simple touchscreen interface on its back.  This will allow nurses to send the robot to a patient’s room when it is needed.  Naturally, RIBA-II has been outfitted with sensors so that it can stop automatically to prevent accidents.  Voice commands, a laser range finder on the front of its wheel enclosure, as well as bumper sensors, can bring the robot to a halt when necessary.

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RIBA-II is 137cm (4’6″) tall, 82cm (2’8″) wide, and 103cm (3’4″) long, and weighs a hefty 230kg (507 lbs).  Each arm has 7 degrees of freedom, its neck has 3, its waist has 2, with 3 more thanks to its omnidirectional base.  Although more testing is needed, a commercial model should be ready by 2015 at a cost of 6,000,000 JPY ($77,000 USD).  That’s a small price to pay when you consider that by then, the elderly population in Japan is estimated to exceed 5.5 million people.  No matter how you cut it, that’s a lot of nurses with aching backs!

[source: Riken press release (EN) & official page (JP)] via [Yahoo! News Japan (JP)]

Video (by K. Moriyama)
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