Japan's elderly drive demand for care-giving robots

Panasonic Hospi-Rimo

In September, the number of Japanese aged 100 or older hit 47,756, according to the health ministry, increasing for the 41st consecutive year and up 3,307 from 12 months prior. That figure included Jirouemon Kimura, who at 114 years old was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest man in the world. It is people like Kimura who are driving the demand for robots designed to improve the quality of elderly people's lives.

At last year's International Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition, held in September, Panasonic Corp.'s new robots attracted a great deal of attention.

One new addition to the company's line-up of robots was named the "Hospi-Rimo," which joins the automated hair-washing robot and the "RoboticBed," all of which are designed to improve the quality of elderly people's lives.

The Hospi-Rimo is designed to act as an intermediary to improve communication between patients who are bed-ridden or have limited mobility, for example, and other people, such as a doctor in another room or even in another city.

The device -- complete with smiley face on its screen -- is equipped with autonomous mobility technology and high-definition visual communications facilities.

Panasonic has also upgraded its Hair-Washing Robot, which can complete the entire procedure of wetting the hair, shampooing, rinsing, conditioning and drying.

The machine takes advantage of the company's robot hand technology, with 16 fingers able to shampoo and rinse away the bubbles with the same dexterity as those of a human, the company said.

Before it gets to the shampooing stage, however, the robot's two limbs scan the patient's head in three dimensions, measuring and recording the exact shape of the head in order to be able to apply just the correct amount of pressure to each individual when it is shampooing and massaging.

Each arm is equipped with three motors that independently control the swing, pressure and massage motions in conjunction with power detection sensors. The robot is even able to remember each person's head and their preferences when it comes to the post-rinse scalp massage.

The android attracted a great deal of attention when it was unveiled at the previous year's exhibition, but the company also received requests for the addition of extra functions. Many of those have been incorporated into the new version, which now features washing arms with more fingers and improved mechanics to improve the experience.

Japanese scientists have also developed a robotic suit that gives even the most infirm person new-found strength.

The robot is worn as an external skeleton and is the latest technological advance designed to assist Japan's rapidly aging farmers. It is equally applicable to elderly people and will assist them in walking.
The suit is fitted with motors at the key joints -- the lower back, knees, elbows and shoulders -- that work in tandem with the wearer and provide him with additional strength.

The robotic suit weighs an unwieldy 25 kg, but the developers are aiming to reduce that by half and have it on the market within two years. Early versions are likely to cost as much as Y1 million (€9,245), but they hope that mass production will reduce that to around Y300,000 (€2,773) per unit.

Elsewhere, scientists have devised a a robot that looks like a huge, happy teddy bear and is designed to lift hospital patients in and out of their wheelchairs and beds.

Named RIBA - short for Robot for Interactive Body Assistance - the android was developed by the government-run Riken research institute and could be deployed in hospitals and retirement homes within three years.

Development took two years and the robot is able to lift a weight of 61 kg on its foam padded arms. Covered in a soft skin designed to protect patients, the robot is also able to recognize faces and voices, as well as responding to up to 30 spoken commands.

The battery-powered robot can operate for up to an hour on a single charge and is more agile and stronger than its predecessor, the Ri-man.

The developers said they decided to make RIBA resemble a teddy bear because human-like versions cause unease in people.

RIBA will undergoing rigorous testing in hospitals over the next three years and could be available commercially in 2012.


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