Tokyo 2020 Robot Project: Dr HIRUKAWA Hirohisa - Showcasing the future of sporting events

The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Tokyo 2020) have undertaken an innovative initiative called the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project in collaboration with robotics experts, the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), and partners, including Toyota and Panasonic, of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Dr HIRUKAWA Hirohisa, who leads the project, has shared with Tokyo 2020 some updates on today’s robot industry and looks at how Tokyo 2020 Games can highlight the future robots.

Expanded use of robots against COVID-19

Dr Hirukawa is a researcher at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), and has been studying how robots can be used for nursing care and automated delivery. He was recently involved in the development of an anti-fall robot walking car that supports the elderly and now leads the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project and oversees the entire project.

In Japan, the industrial robot market used for manufacturing is about one trillion yen (USD $9.55 billion), which is among the largest in the world. While robots are increasingly being adopted for manufacturing, their use in people’s everyday lives are still limited. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a significant change. Robots are becoming recognised as an effective means of practising physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and have been increasingly deployed in all kinds of situations, according to Dr Hirukawa.

“Essential workers are more likely to contract COVID-19. Robots can help by cleaning buildings and transporting goods, or even disinfecting the environment. They are less efficient when they are remotely controlled, but they relieve workers from the need to be on site, so their practical uses are gradually increasing,” said Dr Hirukawa.

Robot0128_2

2020 marked the start of the “service robot era”

“Robots are also starting to be used at restaurants. There are robots that can place ordered dishes on trays and take them to the tables, and there are also robots that wash the dishes," Dr Hirukawa explained.

"Development of cooking robots is also underway, with a wide variety of experiments being carried out, including using robots to make takoyaki (octopus balls). Most of them have not reached commercialisation, but a pilot experiment has started [using a] cooking robot that prepares five kinds of pasta dishes to serve at cafés, which may be promising because the cooking method is simple and fixed,” he added.

Such “service robots” primarily used in the service sector are deployed for diverse tasks such as transporting goods at logistics warehouses and house cleaning.

“It is not clear whether the current (service) robot market will easily expand into a 100-billion-yen industry, but I do hope that the year 2020 will mark the opening of an era of service robots,” said Dr Hirukawa, who has high hopes for further market development.

Robots for sporting events

Robots will be used for a variety of tasks at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Among the robots announced by the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project is the Toyota human support robot, which assists spectators in wheelchairs by carrying their belongings and guiding them to their seats, enabling them to enter and leave the venue smoothly and immerse themselves in the excitement of the competition. The Tokyo 2020 mascot robots, Miraitowa and Someity, welcome athletes and spectators at the Games venues and other related locations. The mascot robots will also help children enjoy the Games in new ways.

The field events support robot (FSR) equipped with an automatic driving function will assist at throwing events in athletics. By self-navigating to retrieve items such as hammers or javelins thrown by athletes, the Toyota robot will help reduce the time needed for retrieval and the amount of staff support required at events. Furthermore, the T-TR1 virtual mobility robot, which is equipped with a 360-degree camera and a display, allows people in remote locations to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of Games venues by watching the images captured by the camera. Also, Panasonic “power assist suits” will be used to help staff members carry heavy items.

Robot-Album0128

Since the spread of COVID-19, numerous competitions for various sports have been cancelled or held without spectators. In the face of such circumstances, Dr Hirukawa expects this project to present case examples of how robots can reduce contact between people at major sporting events.

“There are two sides to how robots can help. One is to connect people at sporting venues and those in remote locations to deliver enjoyable experiences. The other is to minimise the number of staff members required to run a competition by providing assistance. I hope we can show optimal solutions through a variety of case examples.”

The project team took advantage of the one-year postponement of the Games to brush up on their knowledge about robot technology. Dr Hirukawa is confident that his team will be able to showcase robots with more advanced technology.

“I’d like to show people that robots are genuinely helpful. It’s not just about people having fun watching robot demonstrations. My hope is that people will say someday in the future, ‘The robots we saw at the Olympic and Paralympic Games are now everywhere in our lives’.”