When robots only existed in the world of science fiction, they were typically know-it-all machines, frequently disguising deadly intentions. They have long since made the move from fantasy to reality, becoming a familiar part of modern life, from the factory floor to the home.
Toyota believes there is still much more the concept of a robot can offer to society, inspiring it to develop a wide range of robotic machines to provide valuable services, from focused medical rehabilitation to simple companionship for those who live alone – or those deprived of social contact in a lockdown like the world is experiencing today.
Robots also play an important role in Toyota’s transition to a mobility company, helping more people to enjoy the independence and freedom that mobility can provide.
The Toyota Frontier Research Center in Japan is the heart of the company’s exploration of advanced technologies and its robotics R&D operations. It also works closely with specialist partners to expand the possibilities of what can be achieved.
Even though its machines are increasingly sophisticated, Toyota remains faithful to its original principle of “automation with a human touch”: robots and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) should not replace humans but should always be human-centric and preserve the human sense of control.
The technologies under development include humanoid robots that can perform everyday tasks or provide care to people; medical assistance robots that help people regain their mobility after suffering lower limb paralysis; companion robots, that can recognise and respond to human emotions with speech and gestures; and the remarkable CUE, an athletic robot that plays basketball with pinpoint shooting accuracy.
T-HR3 – the Toyota Humanoid Robot
Toyota revealed its first “partner” humanoid robot in 2005 and has since constantly improved its ability to move and perform tasks. T-HR3 was launched in 2017 and the latest version, presented in 2019, is a machine capable of sophisticated, flexible movements, mirroring the actions of a human operator who can be up to 100km away. Standing 1,540mm tall and with 32 joints in its body, it is balanced and able to undertake a wide range of tasks in many different environments.
The operator uses the Master Manoeuvring System to control the robot’s movement, down to finger level. These lightweight controls are “worn” by the operator, including a VR headset which shows them in real time the robot’s view of its surroundings. The development of finger control has enabled T-HR3 to do more delicate and precise tasks, increasing its functionality.
Another key development is the concept of “redundant degrees of freedom” – the robot can continue to operate even when if some of its joints stop working. For example, with its increased range of movement, it might scoop up an item from the side, if it is unable to pick it up directly.
The robot’s basic human shape makes it easier for a human to control without the special training that would be needed to understand and work a more complex design. It also makes it easier for the robot to operate in environments that are designed to suit humans.
Tomohisa Moridaira, Team Leader for the development of T-HR3, said: “We still have to overcome many development issues, but in the future, people will be able to extend their ability to move and experience the world using remote avatar robots. The ability to offer new mobility services like this is a goal that is well-suited to Toyota as it transforms into a mobility company.
“We think there will be important future applications such as providing proper care for the aging population, including helping reduce the travel time for carers and increasing communication time via robots, or enhancing the abilities of people who need care to do more for themselves. We want to use the technologies we have developed to help realise a society in which everyone will be able to maximise the time they have and live active lives.”
Robots for rehabilitation
Toyota WelWalk WW-200
Toyota’s WelWalk WW-200 is a robot that is now commercially available as a medical aid to help people regain power of movement after suffering lower limb paralysis through strokes, injuries or other causes. It is another example of how robots are supporting Toyota’s vision for “the freedom of mobility for all”
Toyota began developing rehabilitation assist robots in 2007, working with Japan’s Fujita Health University. It has worked on their functionality and ease of use to give patients better support and ease the workload for therapists.
The user wears a robotic leg and special footwear to walk on the spot on a gentle treadmill. Their posture and gait are displayed on screen in front of them as they move, giving an instant picture of how their rehabilitation is progressing. The latest model shows assistance settings in real time, to help improve the patient’s gait, and a game function that motivates users to persevere with their walking training.
The WelWalk WW-200 is being manufactured at Toyota’s Motomachi factory and up to 50 units a year are expected to be delivered to customers.
Kirobo and Kirobo Mini – a friend at home and in space
Kirobo – a name that combines the Japanese word for “hope” and robot – made history when it spent 18 months orbiting the earth on board the International Space Station in 2013. Measuring just 34cm tall, Kirobo was developed by Toyota and technology partners to operate in zero gravity, with speech, facial recognition and video recording functions.
While Kirobo’s mission was specialised, it led directly to the production of Kirobo Mini, a smaller version that can sit in the palm of the hand. Toyota’s concept was to provide people with a friendly companion who would recognise their face and certain emotions and interact with them with expressions and words of greeting, support or encouragement.
Kirobo Mini was made commercially available in Japan, together with an operating app. It too plays a role in mobility – what Toyota refers to as “emotional movement,” giving people new experiences and encounters that can inspire them emotionally.
CUE4 the basketball star
CUE4 is a sharp-shooting robot basketball player that has proved its skills on court with one of Japan’s top teams.
Its development began as a spare-time project for a group of Toyota technicians, but so successful has it proved, it now forms part of their day-to-day work.
Successive CUE models have been produced, each with improvements in performance, accuracy and athleticism. CUE3 set a new world record by landing more than 2,000 consecutive baskets in the summer of 2019. Before the end of the year CUE4 was revealed, a robot that can run around the court unaided thanks to an integrated electric motor and is equipped with human-like hand it can use to pick up a ball, aim and shoot.
Project leader Tomohiro Nomi said: “We wanted to show what we could do with manufacturing to give people some excitement and exhilaration (what’s called waku-doki in Japanese).”
Although CUE4 provides entertainment, it also demonstrates how Toyota can apply robotics to build machines with increasingly sophisticated capabilities.