“Bears are powerful and also cute,” says scientist Toshiharu Mukai, explaining the ursine appearance of his new robotic creation, which could be the future of elderly care. Robear is a “high tech teddy” designed to perform a wide range of tasks, including the process of helping patients to stand or lifting them completely; backbreaking work for carers who are often required to do this up to 40 times each day.
Japan is home to a rapidly growing elderly population, and Mukai believes that technology is the answer to facing this ever-imminent challenge: “We really hope that this robot will lead to advances in nursing care, relieving the burden on caregivers today.”
Mukai is head of the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team at the Riken-SRK Collaboration Centre for Human-Interactive Robot Research, and has been working on a robotic solution to patient care since 2009. Robear’s predecessors include RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) and RIBA-II, but this is a lighter, cuddlier model whose “cute and friendly” appearance is crucial. “Patients, especially old people, don’t like mechanical appearance,” says Mukai. “Patients need to feel that robots are their friends.” Robear weights just 140kg and is controlled by a system of advanced actuators and sensors.
In its current stage, Robear is too complex to maintain and operate to be considered a scaleable solution to Japan’s care crisis – not to mention cost-prohibitive. Mukai and his team are confident that robots will achieve mainstream adoption in the future, although precisely when is anybody’s guess. “In a hundred years, I’m sure robots will be popular,” he says, “but in ten years? I’m not so sure… I hope it’ll be in the next ten years but I can’t assure it.”
In the meantime, though, there’s plenty of work to be done at Riken-SRK: “We intend to continue with research toward more practical robots capable of providing powerful yet gentle care to elderly people.”