Tokyo 2020 Robot Project: Toyota Motor Corporation - Supporting people by planting 'seeds for the future'

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In the first of a two-part series, the team behind the robot project speak to Tokyo 2020 on how robots can provide support during Games-time and beyond

As one of the innovative initiatives of the Tokyo 2020 Games, the “Tokyo 2020 Robot Project” is currently being developed and carried out by the Government of Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and official marketing partners Toyota Motor Corporation (Toyota) and Panasonic Corporation (Panasonic) with the cooperation of robotics experts.

The aim of the project is to oversee the development of robots that can provide support to people in various situations and be a helpful and reliable partner during Games-time, as well as promote the standard use of robots in our everyday lives.

This two-part series will feature the efforts of the people who work day-in and day-out to develop robots that aid our activities.

Contributing to a safe and secure Games

In addition to producing automobiles, Toyota have also been focussing on the development of robots that can provide support to the elderly as well as people with impairments.

According to Toyota's NOMI Tomohiro, who is member of the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project, "Automobile production and robotic technologies are highly compatible."

And he is grateful to essential workers who have played a crucial role in the development of these support robots.

The project is a collaboration of various people from diverse backgrounds, and Nomi stresses that the key idea is "to develop seeds for the future".

"I believe that organising the Tokyo 2020 Games in a safe and secure manner would give hope to the world, and I hope we can contribute in any way we can. I would be very happy if we could develop seeds for the future through the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project so that people would think, ‘This is a nice world to live in'."

NOMI Tomohiro shares his passion towards the project
NOMI Tomohiro shares his passion towards the project

HSR and DSR to provide support to everyone

Other robots that are currently being developed by Toyota Motor Corporation are the The Human Support Robot (HSR) and the Delivery Support Robot (DSR), both designed to support people’s activities in everyday life, and will be able to provide assistance to those with impairment and in wheelchairs.

The main role of the HSR is to guide people to their seats and deliver beverages to them. The DSR is designed exclusively for transporting items and to collect garbage.

Under the concept, "Providing support to everyone, including people with impairments", the first model was completed around 2012 and has been updated ever since. Both the DSR and the HSR are derived from the same design, and their common advantage is the ability to transport large volumes at once.

TODA Takahiro is involved in the development of HSR and DSR
TODA Takahiro is involved in the development of HSR and DSR

According to TODA Takahiro, the developer of the robots, it was difficult to find out exactly when, and in what way, people with impairments need support during sport competitions.

He sought advice from a special subsidiary company he worked for who have staff members with impairments. He asked the staff to use the robots and give feedback on the kind of movements and functions that would be helpful to them.

"I also went around Nagoya Station in a wheelchair and found it quite difficult. I bumped into the person in front of me or almost got knocked by someone’s elbow. People seem to welcome being helped by a robot so a guide robot is a service we definitely would like to offer," said Toda.

Since it is also a burden for wheelchair users to carry used containers on their knees and manoeuver the wheelchair to where they can discard the rubbish, Toda also plans to have the robot collect garbage as well.

Experimenting with an HSR at the Olympic Stadium
Experimenting with an HSR at the Olympic Stadium

These robots also have another feature: to prevent collision, the robot is designed to detect and avoid obstacles so they can move around smoothly in crowded places.

That's why, when a robot is guiding a wheelchair user at a stadium, other spectators should not worry about being bumped into.

From the point of view of preventing the spread of COVID-19, robots can provide service assistance and minimise direct contact between people. During Games-time, over 20 robots will be in service at the Olympic Stadium.

"The most important point is to control multiple robots at the same time in a stable and secure manner. We will build a system and structure to provide the assistance required by the spectators," Toda said.

Autonomous FSR contributes to efficient event operation

To support the operations of competitions at Tokyo 2020, The Field Support Robot (FSR) is currently being developed.

In athletics, the robot can help retrieve the discus or javelin in throwing events. In rugby, it can carry the rugby ball to the centre of the field before kick-off.

The FSR has an autonomous capability and selects the best route to move from one point to another, reducing the time needed to retrieve equipment on the field and alleviating the burden on operational staff.

KUWABARA Ken is part of the FSR development team
KUWABARA Ken is part of the FSR development team

In past Games, staff operated a radio-controlled car to retrieve the equipment thrown on the field.

"It takes a lot of skill and careful attention to operate the radio-controlled car from 70m away in the middle of the summer at the stadium while avoiding the people and the electronic scoreboard," Development team member KUWABARA Ken explained.

"We started the development hoping that robots equipped with our technology and autonomous function would contribute to a more efficient event operation."

Adopting the technologies used for automatic guided vehicles (AGV) in factories, the FSR is designed to move at a maximum speed of 20km/h and is equipped with a camera that uses AI to detect people and a sensor that uses light reflected from a laser beam to calculate the distance and angle between an obstacle.

Kuwabara paid special attention to the communication light that is attached to the upper part of the robot.

"The light would change colour according to the different actions of 'autonomous', 'tracking' or 'stop' so it is obvious what mode the robot is in, what the robot is trying to grasp and how it will react,” he said.

Kuwabara says the objective is to achieve collaboration between robots and humans, and the light was designed to help people understand what the FSR is trying to do.

The Toyota team working on the maintenance of the FSR during a verification test at a sports event
The Toyota team working on the maintenance of the FSR during a verification test at a sports event

The team also made sure they improved the robots' performance after various tests at numerous sporting events and after receiving feedback from athletes.

As an example, in Para athletics a vision-impaired long jump athlete is supported by a “caller” who guides the athlete by voice and claps to indicate when to take off. Silence in the stadium is essential for an athlete like this to concentrate on sounds made by the caller, so the sound of the FSR got in the way. The equipment was redesigned from scratch and the sound was reduced, and nobody complained about the sound again.

The development team continue to ensure further improvements are made on the robots and are determined to provide an FSR that can reliably support the staff during the Tokyo 2020 Games.