Nursing facilities pin hopes on robots

Last updated 10:59 04/08/2014
Yomiuri Shimbun

YAY FOR ROBOTS: Robots for nursing care and other medical purposes are being developed around Japan; here elderly people exercise with a Palro 'healing robot'.

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Robots for nursing care and other medical purposes are being developed around Japan, as the country's greying society has fueled hope regarding robots' ability to ease the burdens of nursing care and support physical activity.

One estimate sees the domestic market for robots swelling to 10 trillion yen (About NZ$150,000,000,000) by 2035.

Different companies are competing to develop the latest technology, including start-ups emerging from universities and companies entering the field from different industries. Local governments are also implementing support measures.

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Yokohama, Japan - This April, the Nakai Fujishiroen nursing care facility for the elderly in Nakai, Japan, introduced three Palro robots equipped with artificial intelligence. The 40-centimetre-tall robots were developed in 2010 by software company Fujisoft, based in Yokohama.

The Palro is a "healing robot" capable of remembering more than 100 people's faces and names, as well as past conversations. It can also dance.

About 150 welfare facilities for the elderly have introduced Palro robots nationwide.

"It even remembers my name," Taka Sudo, a 90-year-old resident of Nakai Fujishiroen, said happily. According to a member of the facility involved with the robots' use, many elderly people feel more affection for the robots when conversation among them is awkward.

After nine cities and two towns in Kanagawa Prefecture, including Sagamihara, were designated by the central government as special robot manufacturing districts in February 2013, the prefectural government examined the effect Palro robots had on elderly people with dementia. The results showed that many people enjoyed such activities as conversing and playing games with the robots.

"We also expect preventive benefits regarding dementia. We'll continue to support development," said Yukio Takazawa, head of the prefecture's manufacturing promotion division.

- Takeshi Kuroiwa

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Osaka, Japan - Industrial motor manufacturer Muscle entered the field of robots around 2010, designing Robohelper Sasuke, which gently lifts and transports patients.

Sasuke is used for such purposes as transferring a person from a bed to a wheelchair. The movement of a hammock sheet on which the person is placed and the lifting force applied to it are controlled by a lever manipulated by the caregiver.

"The comfort of the person being cared for is the important thing," said Hirofumi Tamai, 62, president of the Osaka-based company.

Sasuke is distinguished by its simple structure, in which the robot is operated simply by moving the lever up and down. This was made possible by the company's own Cool Muscle motor, which combines a driver and controller in one unit.

Initially during development, Muscle focused on performance, working on a device that would automatically measure the weight of the person to be carried and transport them all by itself. However, the people on the front lines of nursing care had different priorities.

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"Making something that is useful to people is the No. 1 priority, not showing off our technological capabilities," Tamai said. Muscle is continuing its development of robots with this principle in mind.

- Ryuichi Washio

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