Service robots tackle new challenges

No longer the realm of science fiction, robotics is solving some of society’s most pressing needs.
“We have focused on building robot systems that could be used by anyone, regardless of their level of knowledge”

As many developed nations have fewer children, projections show that most countries will have smaller populations by the end of the century. Japan isn’t alone in facing the challenges of a shrinking workforce but it is leading the way in coming up with innovative solutions. At Qbit Robotics in Tokyo, engineers are working to give robots a more meaningful role in workplaces.

Robots have proved their worth in industrial settings, where they are now essential, but less so in the service industry. “We wanted to focus on creating service-sector robots that could be used here and in other places in the world,” says CEO Hiroya Nakano, who co-founded the company in 2018.

Robots take a long time to develop and many are intended for the factory floor. Qbit collaborates with robot-makers and adapts their technology for different uses in real-life settings where people will increasingly be in short supply: intelligent robots that can make coffee, mix cocktails or prepare a bowl of pasta. They can take orders and even make (limited) small talk.

Table service

Face-to-face contact in this Tokyo restaurant has been reduced by Qbit’s delivery robot, which brings food from a salad bar straight to the table. Qbit is also developing ways to make its robots interact with humans. “It reassures people to have that communication,” says Qbit CEO Hiroya Nakano.

Robots aren’t only being used to fill labour gaps either. The coronavirus pandemic has created a demand for contactless interaction and robots can help out here too. Qbit has created a system for a delivery robot that can move independently, pick up an order and deliver a plate of food straight to a restaurant table or a patient’s bedside: 6,000 are already hard at work in hospitals across the world. The same robot has also been adapted to disinfect hospital rooms in China.

Nakano realised that there would have to be a fresh approach to make robot systems useful in the service industry. “We have focused on building robot systems that could be used by anyone.” He thinks robots could be part of the solution to labour-shortage problems. “The population issues that Japan is facing are universal,” he says.

Thinking ahead
Clever fixes for an ageing population

At current estimates, 23 nations – including Spain, Japan and Thailand – are expected to see their populations halve (or more) by 2100. By that point, there will be as many people turning 80 as there will be babies born in a year. The implications are dramatic: workforces will be smaller and there will be increasing numbers of elderly people in need of care. Japanese companies and institutions are working on ways that robots can help with both problems.

1. In homes

Robots that can support the elderly and relieve the burden of carers are a priority. The first to meet new iso standards was the Resyone “carebot” from Panasonic – an electric bed that turns into a wheelchair.

2. In hospitals

Robear is a humanoid robot developed at Japan’s Riken research institute that is able to lift a person from a bed, which could take over some of the heavy lifting from nurses.

3. In kitchens

Based in the city of Koganei, Connected Robotics Inc has worked on a restaurant robot that can cook and rinse multiple servings of soba noodles before a human takes over to add the creative finishing touches and serve them.