Special Issue on Advanced Mechatronics Technology for Life Supprot and Human Welfare
In the latter part of July, 1991, I attended the cultural lecture meeting called “Welfare Robots” as the chairman and also as one of the lecturers, which was held in a certain city in the suburbs of Tokyo. Some 250 people between the ages of 20 and 80 listened to the lectures attentively and also participated in various discussions. One of the topics at this meeting was whether or not sophisticated robots could be useful for welfare. One of project leaders made a statement saying in essence “If robots could be produced which are similar to human beings, then men could be replaced by robots without modifying the current production lines which are relied on by human beings. In consequence, the development of brainy, sophisticated robots is absolutely indispensable for achieving automation.” This implies that sophisticated robots are viewed as a powerful tool for the automation of tasks. With regard to this point, I have been making somewhat negative statements in the past. In the current situations in Japan, there are only few examples of the use in production lines intelligent robots with sensors which have been studied by the so-called robot researchers. Production lines employ more simply repetitive robots which are technically mature but only have position control functions. Even visiting a highly automated factory, one does not often encounter a scene where a robot with sophisticated intelligence or sensors is actively engaged in a task. Because research results are not fully utilized in practical robots, one often hears stories about corporate managers saying to their robot researchers in a blaming tone “what are you going to produce a robot that is usable?” The idea that robot technology is part of automation technology is not something which has originated in this project. It appears that a number of people in hospitals are thinking along this line. I myself often receive inquiries concerning technical matter like “Couldn’t this task be automated by a robot?” Moreover, a variety of robot terms are now being used with the names of various applicable fields being attached to the word robot such as maintenance robot, sweeping robot, nursing robot, medical robot, welfare robot, etc. All these are names of robots as automated systems which may replace men for work in various fields. In trying to develop a certain practical system, there are developmental goals that are peculiar to the system. To construct systems which serve such goals efficiently and economically is the basis for the development of individual systems. When the goal of the development of a system is identical with that intended by the study of a robot, then this robot is expected to provide a powerful solution to the creation of the system. However, it is not necessarily true that such a condition is always satisfied, but it often happens that robot technology does not assume the optimum solution for the intended system. For example, in considering the construction of an automated system for a production line as mentioned above, what is intended is the construction of a highly productive line, and the machines required as components of the system are those which carry out tasks with reliability and at low costs. In general, the practical technology which is used for the development of machines with such requirements is not the advanced robot technology but is the technology for building highly rigid systems or the high-speed positioning servo technology. It can therefore be said that from the standpoint of constructing automated lines, it is more effective to study system designs or servo technology. When robots are viewed as automation technology, then such servo technology can be said to be part of the robot technology. But simply saying that would eliminate any characteristic inherent in robot technology. In that case, the question naturally arises as to what robot engineering or robotics is. I believe that regardless of applications, the study involves looking at the functions of living bodies, making technical interpretations, and then discovering new design concepts for engineering systems. By taking such attitude, I think that the world of learning peculiar to robot engineering is born for the first time which is independent of the traditional areas of learning such as mechanical engineering and control engineering. This magazine is a special issue on welfare robots whose articles have been kindly written by various experts engaged in studies of robots from the standpoint of placing particular emphasis on the characteristics of living bodies.