Army of humanoid robots takes Tokyo by storm

robotHonda’s Asimo robot conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Robots are increasingly becoming less whimsical and more practical. Photographer: Paul Sancya/AP.In an age when multi-skilling is at a premium, Motoman may prove to be the model employee. When he’s not spot-welding on a car production line, he’s flipping pancakes – with not a drop of spilled batter in sight – and can even be called on to perform routine blood tests.Motoman is one of hundreds of cutting-edge robots exhibited during the past week at the industry’s biennial showcase in Tokyo.The robot industry in Japan was worth 522bn yen (£3.65bn) last year, a figure that manufacturers hope will reach ¥900bn by 2016.

Japan’s recent contributions to the robot population owed much to the wacky and whimsical: interactive pets and humanoids that dance, teach and act as unfailingly polite office receptionists.But – judging by the machines on display in Tokyo – the precarious state of the economy and Japan’s ageing population have led to a new emphasis on their commercial and practical uses.Robots may one day be our friends, but for now they are in more urgent demand as hired hands, performing the dirty, difficult and dangerous work humans cannot or will not do: packing, lifting, welding, bricklaying and sifting through the aftermath of natural disasters.

That does not mean there is any lack of jaw-dropping innovation in the latest generation of industrial robots.Yaskawa, a leading robot maker, believes its Motoman range will banish humans from the shop floor.”This year there is definitely an emphasis on robots with commercial uses,” says Tohru Akama, a Yaskawa engineer.”We were asked to develop robots that can perform tasks they weren’t previously able to do at high speed, such as palleting and packing.”Amid nagging fears that robots will one day turn nasty on their creators – or at the very least prove incompatible as colleagues – hopes are high that research platforms such as Hiro, a humanoid from Kawada Industries, will prove that we can coexist.

“At the moment it would be best suited to production lines,” expert Maksim Radev says of this robot.Hiro can recognise colours and shapes, lift and manipulate objects with its ultra-dexterous mechanical arms and hands, and obey simple verbal commands.”But Hiro can also recognise people’s faces and match them to voices, so it would work well alongside humans.”No industry show these days is complete without a nod to the environment. Here it came in the form of D+ropop, a curvaceous android crafted out of corrugated cardboard – and whose upper limbs and head are powered by eight lightweight motors.

It’s unlikely that D+ropop will be doing any heavy lifting, but “she” is expected to be in demand as a hi-tech mannequin or an advertising gimmick for firms keen to boost their green credentials.Industrial automation aside, Japan’s ageing society and low birthrate have created a potentially huge market in helper and companion robots.Tokyo University’s robotic wheelchair uses sensor pads that allow users to control their movements by shifting their bodyweight, while NSK’s mobile “human assist” robot leads its owner past obstacles – a hi-tech guide dog on wheels.

One of the most anticipated exhibits was the new, improved muscle suit from Tokyo University of Science – due to go into commercial production next year, which enables its wearer to perform strenuous lifting work and has obvious uses among the elderly and infirm.Other new-generation robots demonstrated levels of dexterity and subtlety unimaginable just a few years ago – enough, for example, to build Lego models, grip slices of cake without crushing them or transmit live video images as they slither through the rubble of an earthquake.Not all of the latest creations are quite as earnest. Sideshow frolics were provided by Topio, a silver humanoid who plays table tennis, while the diminutive Manoi Go – yours for £1,000 – bolstered its reputation as the next cyber-star by showing off its breakdancing skills.