Japan's teddy bear nurse robot gets a softer touch

The latest prototype is designed to save human backs but still requires a human operator

Japanese research center Riken has upgraded its nursing-care robot, now called Robear, with better tactile sensors for a softer touch. The machine is expected to help move bedridden patients into wheelchairs in nursing homes in Japan, which has a rapidly ageing population.

Japanese research center Riken has upgraded its nursing-care robot, now called Robear, with better tactile sensors for a softer touch. The machine is expected to help move bedridden patients into wheelchairs in nursing homes in Japan, which has a rapidly ageing population.

If the thought of a giant robot bear picking you up doesn't sound too scary, consider spending your old age in Japan.

State-backed research center, Riken, is developing a bear-like intelligent lifting machine that can help move elderly and bedridden patients into wheelchairs and beds.

Equipped with giant padded arms, Robear is the latest in a line of prototype nurse robots designed to take on some of the backbreaking work of caregivers who must lift patients an average of 40 times per day in Japan, which has a rapidly greying population.

In contrast to the earlier prototypes Riba and Riba II, Robear is capable of gentler movements because it has capacitance-type tactile sensors that feed data to its actuators, which in turn can quickly sense any resistance to exerted force from patients' bodies.

The tactile sensors are based on auto parts maker Sumitomo Riko's Smart Rubber, a flexible rubber sensor that can measure pressure and deformation. The robot also has six-axis torque sensors, cameras, a microphone and 27 degrees of freedom, or axes of motion.

At 140 kilograms, the 1.5-meter-tall Robear is 90kg lighter than Riba II, unveiled in 2011. Engineers gave it a smaller base with retractable legs that can be deployed for stability during lifting operations. The legs can be stowed to move the robot around.

A YouTube video by Riken shows Robear slowly embracing and lifting men as they hug its head, which resembles that of a cartoon polar bear.

The droid still requires human control, however -- either by manually guiding its arm or via a linked Android tablet -- and its lifting capacity is still only 80kg. It can operate for about four hours on a charge of its lithium-ion batteries.

Though Robear comes from a line of nurse-bot prototypes going back to Ri-Man in 2006, Riken is not aiming to commercialize the machine itself. Instead it hopes the technologies could go into a practical nursing-care robot.

"For commercialization in the near future, we need much simpler, lower-cost robots," Robear project leader Toshiharu Mukai said via email. "For example, the number of motors should be reduced to two or three and the price should be lower than ¥50,000 (US$420)."

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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Tim Hornyak

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