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Biotechnology

Toyota showcases robotic savvy as RoboCup gets down to business

Toyota Motor's HSR, which was selected as a standard platform for next year's household competition, is designed to assist the physically disabled with everyday tasks.

LEIPZIG, Germany -- In the 20 years since its debut as a festival for competitive robot geeks, RoboCup has grown into an event attracting serious interest from around the world, with large companies submitting their products to compete in events showcasing their technologies.

This year's annual event took place in Leipzig, Germany, from June 30 to July 4, with about 3,500 researchers and students attending.

Toyota Motor's human-support robot greeted the crowd on July 1 at Leipziger Messe, the competition's venue.

The HSR is designed to care for the elderly and physically handicapped. Operated either by verbal instructions or via a tablet computer, it uses its 60cm arm to perform such actions as pushing, pulling and picking up objects. Its ability to rotate in place makes it suitable for use in homes.

HSR represents a field that is expected to have enormous potential -- robots to care for the elderly and physically handicapped. The RoboCup Federation recently decided to introduce a new series of events in which developers compete using standard platforms to perform tasks required in households. The competition will premiere at the next year's RoboCup, in Nagoya in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi.

Toyota introduced the HSR in a special presentation at this year's event to select the standard hardware for the new section. In this part of the event, six organizations, including SoftBank Group and an Italian research organization, in addition to Toyota, showcased their offerings.

The first RoboCup was held in 1997 in Nagoya, organized by a group led by Sony Computer Science Laboratories President and CEO Hiroaki Kitano, who is known for his role in the development of the popular doglike pet robot Aibo.

The event was initially intended as an academic event where advanced robotics technologies could be tried out in the form of a soccer competition. In its initial form, the event, which gathered some 100 researchers, was something of a "festival of geeks," one insider said.

In recent years, however, the event has become more like an international trade show for the robotics industry. Indeed, the theme for the 20th event was "industrialization of robotics."

"About 25% of the venue area is used by businesses to showcase their technology and recruit staff," Kitano said.

Dramatic progress

The transformation of the event owes a lot to the dramatic progress in robotics.

SoftBank's Pepper humanoid robot was the other platform selected for the home-use robot contest at RoboCup 2017.

Gone are the days when robot developers competed in, for example, operability and dexterous movement of machinery, or how quickly and precisely robots could respond to human commands.

Today, researchers focus mainly on big data and artificial intelligence.

In today's cutting-edge robots, huge amounts of data generated by various sensors are analyzed extremely quickly. Instead of being connected to an input device, such as a controller, robots are connected to cloud servers on the internet. The devices understand human commands and act accordingly.

In addition, researchers are increasingly required to team with businesses and think seriously about how their nascent technology may be turned into business while it is still being developed.

RoboCup organizers want to deepen ties between researchers and businesses and industries to help them bring useful technologies to the market. That is why they asked Toyota Motor and other developers to bring their home-use robots to this year's event.

HSR and SoftBank Group's Pepper humanoid robot were chosen as the two platforms to be used in the home-use robot competition next year.

The RoboCup Federation selected the two robots for their compact size and with the expectation that the two companies will continue to produce and maintain them, according to RoboCup insiders.

Toyota's plan is to sell about 1,000 units of its HSR by 2020.

Akifumi Tamaoki, general manager of Toyota's Partner Robot Division, said it is important for the company to get outside assistance.

"There's only so much we can do just by our research alone," Tamaoki said. "We want input from people around the world to raise the level of sophistication" of the robots.

Another company showing strong interest in RoboCup is Sony.

Until about a decade ago, the company was closely associated with the competition. Aibo, for example, was a standard robot used in the RoboCup soccer league. But since withdrawing from the robot business in 2006, Sony's relations with the event have remained tenuous.

That situation is set to change, as the company recently announced it will again enter the robot business. Insiders say Sony is likely to become one of the top sponsors of RoboCup.

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