Toyota aims to put robots to use early next decade
By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia auto correspondent
TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp said on Thursday it aims to put its humanoid and other advanced robots to practical use soon after 2010 to help people in factories, hospitals, homes and around town.
Unveiling two new robots called the "mobility robot" and the "violin-playing robot," Japan's top automaker said it would step up research and development in the field, including by doubling the number of engineers to about 200 in around three years.
It will also build a research facility dedicated to robot technology on the site of one of its domestic factories next year, President Katsuaki Watanabe said.
Researchers in Japan, including from academia and companies such as rival Honda Motor Co, are racing to build robots smart enough to serve the needs of the elderly in a country where 40 percent of the population is expected to be over 65 by 2055.
"Over the next two to three years, we will put the robots to the test through trial applications and see what kind of business possibilities they present," Watanabe told a news conference.
Under its recently crafted long-term plan dubbed "Global Vision 2020," Toyota aims to make the robotics field one of its core businesses by 2020.
In a demonstration of the new achievements, Toyota brought out the 152 cm (5 ft), two-legged violin-playing robot, which gave a brief performance -- complete with vibrato sound -- from Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" Marches, popular at graduation ceremonies in Japan.
Toyota plans to further advance the robot's dexterity and flexibility to enable it to use tools and assist with domestic chores and nursing and medical care. The robot now has 17 joints in both of its hands and arms.
Its new "mobility robot," aimed at helping people with short-distance transport, is an intelligent wheelchair that can maneuver uneven ground and obstacles, and be remotely controlled to go to a person's bedside.
The robot, which looks like a bulky high-chair on wheels, can also follow a person at a measured pace, functioning as a porter, and has wheels that swivel at an angle to keep the seat level when going over bumps or up a hill.
Toyota envisages its "Partner Robot" initiative helping people in four fields -- domestic duties, nursing and medical care, manufacturing, and short-distance personal transport.
Watanabe said Toyota hoped to boost collaboration with academia and the government to achieve practical applications for the robots, while remaining open to cooperation with other companies in the field.
While R&D spending would rise from such efforts, Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said technology gleaned from the robots such as stability control and visual recognition could be poured back into improving cars.