In future society with a declining birthrate and growing proportion of elderly people, there is hope that robots may be used to enhance the abilities of humans and to perform hard jobs instead of humans as a solution to reducing the burden of caring for the elderly, maintaining a sustainable social infrastructure, and ensuring our security in the face of disasters and terrorism. The proposal laid out in this paper involves development of innovative basic technologies and their elements needed to build human-friendly smart-robots, and construction of an R&D platform that would enable the integration and modularization of such technologies.
In 1980s, the use of industrial robots became commonplace. Today’s commercial robots include cleaning robots and unmanned aircraft (drones), while attention is also focused on robots that play active roles in various service areas including selfdriving cars, disaster relief, maintenance of social infrastructures, and caregiving. The total market scale for the robot industry including these service fields is projected to reach 10 trillion yen by 2035. In January 2015, Japan’s government established a New Robot Strategy with the aim of accelerating the commercialization of robots and reinforcing our systems and services. The administration is promoting various national projects in such application fields as the manufacturing and service sectors; medical and long-term care; agriculture, forestry, and fishery and food industries; and areas concerned with the social infrastructure and disaster recovery. It is important that Japan lead the world in manufacturing capability through the development of core materials, parts, and their modules for the robots. These activities would enhance Japan’s industrial competitiveness for robots in the service sector, where future growth is expected.
The last few decades have brought major advances in electronics-related technologies that are important basic technologies for robots, including microprocessors, digitalanalog integrated circuits (LSIs) for control, and communication LSIs. However, we have not seen similar technological progress in robot actuators and sensors. Actuators and sensors will play a central role in future robots used in the service sector and will require different functions and capabilities than what are currently available. To meet these demands, it will be essential to develop new basic technologies for robots by combining and integrating mechanics, which is one of the primary branches of robotics, with technologies in other fields that have experienced substantial progress, including telecommunications, nanotechnology, and materials.
Further, since service robots will be required to interact with humans, they must have greater intelligence and better performance at a lower cost. They must also be smaller and lighter with enhanced safety features. For this reason, we will need to develop new basic technologies such as soft robotics aimed at meeting these needs and modules that integrate these technologies. Thus we not only will need to further develop technologies in each specialized field, but also will need to construct a new type of framework for technological development that involves collaboration with other researchers of basic robot technologies including technologies in dissimilar fields such as telecommunications, nanotechnology, materials, biotechnology, and engineers in the field of robot systems and the service sector.
When focusing on the three core elements of robots, which are powering, sensing, and control systems, the following development will be needed to address important R&D issues concerning new basic technologies for robots.
Among technologies needed for powering systems, it will be important to develop new actuators that are lightweight and highly efficient and that produce high output power. We must not only improve the performance of electromagnetic motors, which are currently the most common actuator used in robots, but also capitalize on the features of actuators based on new operating principles of fluid pressure, the piezoelectric effect, electrochemistry, and shape memory alloys in order to meet a wide variety of needs, such as achieving flexible and soft human-like movement and moving structural components formed of soft materials. R&D is also needed on actuators that are themselves soft and artificial muscles, for example.
For sensing, it is essential that we develop low-cost sensors that are smaller and lighter. In order to equip service robots with numerous sensors, the sensors must be manufactured at a much lower cost while still achieving precision. It is essential that the sensors are very reliable and have good stability and reproducibility since the robots will be interacting with humans. We will need to develop sensors that consume little power, are easy to mount, and are suitable for measuring tactile sensations along a surface rather than just at a point. We must also develop sensors that can be integrated with actuators.
For control systems, it will be important to develop technologies for observing and perceiving surrounding conditions, for posture control, and for high-speed communications that enable a robot to perform autonomous actions, as well as coordinated actions with other robots and peripheral equipment. We will also need to develop predicting technologies that can correctly predict changes in circumstances. Among the required technologies for control systems are integrated circuits that incorporate new architectures capable of collecting and rapidly processing information from numerous sensors, and AI technologies such as deep learning. We must also develop new control techniques modeled after living creatures that imitate the principles of their perception and behavior in order that robots can reflexively and safely respond to unexpected changes in circumstances based on previous experiences. Soft robotics is another field that has been gaining much attention of late. Making inroads into soft robotics will require technologies for precisely controlling soft materials like plastics and rubbers, which have traditionally been difficult to incorporate as robot components. It is hoped that these technologies can be developed jointly among researchers and engineers involved in materials, drive systems, sensors, and control.
In addition to developing individual basic technologies, it is important that these technologies are developed from a manufacturing perspective with the goal of producing specific robots and systems employing robots.
To this end, we will likely need a platform with manufacturing equipment capable of integrating the development of basic technologies and experiment facilities for mastering cutting-edge technologies, by which we can verify functions at the module and system level and assesses their validity. Through this platform, we will be able to collect from academia basic technologies that show promise for meeting the needs of service and industrial circles for robot technologies and functions, conduct technological development for combining and integrating these technologies, and confirm the functionality of the integrated technologies. Further, rather than simply verifying the functionality of developed technologies and their operations for robots, it will be important to be able to perform practical experiments that envision actual usage scenarios at the target industrial site, for example.
Making progress with the above R&D issues will require mid-to-long term strategic efforts. In particular, we need to construct a platform that enables us to develop new element and base technologies through the fusion of dissimilar fields and to verify and experimentally use functions at the module level, as described above. We must also construct an open R&D base allowing industry, academia, and government to collaborate in research and development using this platform. This would allow researchers to make further advances and improvements in a wide variety of basic technologies developed by academia, and to combine and integrate these technologies to develop new functions sought by users. The improved technologies and expertise acquired during research would be accumulated as new knowledge for the participating academic researchers that would be utilized in the development of young researchers and engineers.
In order to gain an edge internationally, we must identify needs from a global viewpoint, develop technologies that utilize Japan’s strengths in material and energy-saving technologies, and promote international standardization from a perspective of safety and ELSI (ethical, legal, and social issues).
Since the development of robot technologies is on the verge of becoming a major technological trend, it will be necessary to create new areas for robot technologies and to work on evolving these areas so that, rather than being suspended after a short run, our continuous efforts in development will cultivate a technological strength for Japan.