FUKUOKA, Japan As the competitive field narrows for World Cup soccer, Honda Motor's Asimo robot kicked a soccer ball to start the RoboCup competition last Thursday (June 20) as part of the Robotrex 2002 exhibition, where developers and builders forecast a broad, expanding market for robots.
Component maker Murata Manufacturing Co. Ltd. said the robot would emerge as the driving force of electronics this century, akin to computers and automobiles in the last century.
Several companies at Robotrex exhibited components and kits for robot research and production alongside such RoboCup partners as SGI Japan Ltd. and Sony Corp. "We believe it is necessary to involve various types of companies for the robotics industry to grow widely," said Hiroaki Kitano, president of the RoboCup Federation and the founder of the RoboCup competition.
Murata's sales staff is already courting robot developers. At Robotrex, it displayed sensors, actuators, remote controls and power supplies that are currently employed in camcorders, hard-disk drives and other products, but can also be used in robots, the company said. For example, the gyro sensors currently used in cameras can be used to help a biped robot achieve balance. Shock sensors "should be a useful component for robot discipline," joked Yuki Yamagata of Murata's sales department. The sensors, currently employed in hard-disk drives, generate a sharp peak when detecting a shock. If a robot performs mischievously and is swatted or patted, the sensor detects the blow.
Murata is working with the Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project to develop the humanoid Morph robot, which will utilize Murata's Bluetooth wireless communications technology.
Enplas Corp., a plastics manufacturer, showed a prototype of a tiny robot hand with micro gears made of engineering plastics. A hand has five fingers measuring less than two inches long, which are moved by 0.5-micron resin gears. "More than 10 gears are used in one robot finger," said Genichi Kimiduka, manger of Enplas. "It is a tough job to process metal to make gears." The prototype is intended "to show the possibility of engineering plastics in building robots," Kimiduka said. "We will show more improved components for robots next time."
Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. is developing utility robots and is also considering offering components for robot development. It showed a three-layer robot controller board at Robotrex able to handle host, communications and motor control. The controller board is used in Sanyo's wheeled inverse pendulum robot. Since dedicated robot controller boards are not available, researchers are forced to develop their own, said Naoto Tojo, general manager of Sanyo's ecology and energy system laboratory. Sanyo's controller board cost about $4,000, Tojo said. "We are showing our prototype and gathering requirements from robot researchers to provide a more reasonable priced, high-performance controller." Four 100-watt dc motors can be connected to the motion-control section of the controller board, which is scalable to allow up to 32 connected motors.
Maxon Japan, a unit of Maxon Motor AG, showed a wide range of motors at Robotrex. "More than 50 percent of the robots developed thus far use our motors," said Hiroaki Hisamatsu, sales engineer of Maxon Japan. The company is working with academic institutions to build an affinity for its motors among students before they step out into the commercial world. "Those students eventually join companies feeling close to Maxon Motor," Hisamatsu said.
Other companies offer finished robots for researchers. Fujitsu Ltd. started selling the Hoap-1 humanoid robot as a research platform late last year, and has already sold units so universities. Osaka University showed its Senchans robot that used the Hoap body, for example. "We'll continue to sell the robot to academic or research institutes for another one or two years," said Minoru Yoshino, sales manager of Fujitsu Automation Ltd. "We do not expect the robot business will take off immediately."
Nitta Corp. intends to start sales of a five-fingered robot hand with pressure sensors. Developed at Gifu University, the hand has 20 joints. Nitta licensed technology from U.S. Tekscan to developed a sensor sheet that covers the hand. The company showed footage of the hand picking up a paper cup without changing its shape.
Fujitsu's robot and Nitta's sensor hand don't come cheap. Each costs nearly $4 million.