By Brenda Pittsley
Robots are ubiquitous these days; they help build everything from cars to cameras. But the specialized robots found in manufacturing plants aren’t exactly the android companions science fiction writers have visualized for 60 years.
The reason we don’t see robots like C-3PO striding the streets is that engineers haven’t figured out how to overcome real-world robot hazards such as dust, moisture, uneven travel surfaces, and electromagnetic interference.
Look ahead 30 years, though, and Tadahiro Kawada ’85 thinks robots may have evolved into upright, bipedal helpmates that can go where we do without falling flat on their computer controlled noggins.
Tokyo-based Kawada Industries has built three robots that have functional arms and legs and make use of such innovations as cantilevered hip joints, a big deal for machines that aspire to walking on sloped terrain.
“We do the hardware,” Kawada says. Others “put the life into it.”
The first two Kawada Industries robots looked like Rosie, the robot maid from “The Jetsons.” But the latest design is buff and lean, like a Transformer toy on the Atkins diet. These robots are research test beds constructed with two purposes in mind.
From a commercial standpoint, robots that mimic human movement are desirable because they can be multipurpose. Currently most robots are designed only for one use, Kawada says. They mow lawns or they disable landmines, and that’s all. With a “mass-produced, human-shaped robot, you can just download a program and have [the robot] drive a backhoe, or what have you.”
The other application for human-shaped robots—and this is the goal that has pushed research into hyperdrive—is to develop models that can maneuver in settings designed and sized for people, such as houses and city streets. The idea, Kawada says, is that robots might serve as caregivers to the elderly or people with physical disabilities.
This use might sound a bit Orwellian, but it’s an attempt to address a big problem in Japan—because of decling birth rates, people over 65 soon will outnumber the younger folks available to help them.
Swept up in the robotics push just five years ago, Kawada admits this turn in his career is “fun and interesting. I grew up watching ‘Astro Boy’ and lots of other cartoons with robots,” he says.
But robotics isn’t a job path he envisioned. His interests tended toward flight, and his several academic degrees include advanced study in aerospace engineering. Robotics is even more out of character for Kawada Industries.
Founded by Kawada’s great-grandfather in 1922, the company is primarily a civil engineering and architecture firm. It built the world’s longest suspension bridge (the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, 1.24 miles long) and the world’s tallest Buddha statue (Tokyo’s bronze Buddha of Tsukuba, 394 feet tall), according to Guinness World Records.
Kawada Industries also has an Aircraft and Mechanical Systems Division, for which Tadahiro Kawada is the managing director. The division specialized in helicopter technology for industry. But then came the falloff in the value of the yen over the last decade.
“We had all these very talented engineers, mechanics, technicians, and other avionics and aerospace specialists,” Kawada says. “We didn’t want to just lay them off.”
Instead, the aviation team became R&D consultants. Skilled at designing and building lightweight machinery with excellent dependability that is also resistant to vibration and electromagnetic interference, the helicopter crew applied their expertise to generating fresh ideas for the automobile, energy, and defense industries.
It wasn’t long before these innovations came to the attention of Hirochika Inoue. Inoue is one of the fathers of robotics research and heads the Japanese National Project for Humanoid Robot Research and Development at the University of Tokyo.
In 1998 Inoue was looking for a company to help the university build a “small, lightweight, maneuverable, self-contained humanoid robot as a research vehicle,” Kawada recalls. Established robotics companies were considered, but the contract went to bridge-building Kawada Industries.
“It came to us,” Kawada says. “We didn’t go looking for robots.”
Now, Kawada reports, his aviation team is reading physiology textbooks and plans to work with doctors and psychologists.