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Technology

Pandemic-era robots shop, talk and even clean the loo

Need for social distancing drives development of real-world 'avatars'

Mira Robotics developed a robot than can clean toilets automatically or through remote control.

TOKYO -- One robot can use a toilet brush to scrub porcelain bowls all by itself. Another lets humans work on faraway assembly lines with fine motor skills, thanks to virtual reality gloves.

Avatars, or remotely controlled robots, are gaining traction as the COVID-19 pandemic turns even the most mundane tasks into risky undertakings.

The machines have mostly handled less-tactile functions until now, such as communications, monitoring and transportation. But Japanese developers are leveraging their strengths to take the technology to another level.

Mira Robotics carried out tests this March with its toilet-cleaning robot in collaboration with western Japan's Oita Prefecture. The robot can work on its own or via remote control.

The robot adroitly handled the toilet brush. Human staffers needed only check monitors and intervene remotely if necessary.

Janitorial crews stand to spend less time cleaning the restroom, lowering their risk of infection. The Kawasaki-based company has also developed a robot whose arms can emit ultraviolet light to sterilize doorknobs and other surfaces.

Meltin MMI, headquartered in Tokyo, is developing an industrial robot whose arms can be remotely controlled by humans wearing interface gloves.

The newest version of its Meltant robot, unveiled in late March, can handle power tools with a human's fine touch. Meltin plans tests at construction sites and plants. The avatar can be operated remotely in places as far-flung as the U.S. or Abu Dhabi.

Sony and airline group ANA Holdings said Monday that they have agreed to jointly develop avatars through group companies.

Avatars can be used for virtual shopping trips, like at this store in Tokyo. (Photo by Masashi Isawa)

ANA group member avatarin has launched a service for remote visits with mobile robots. The avatars can be used for virtual shopping and tourism. Sony AI, part of the Sony group, brings to the table artificial intelligence and sensor technology fine-tuned by Sony's work creating the Aibo robot dog.

And "there will be an increasing demand for various remote robotic solutions that can perform physical tasks, especially in high-risk environments and situations where human contact and movement are restricted," Sony AI CEO Hiroaki Kitano said in a news release.

Avatars are taking off around the world. U.S.-based Ava Robotics, an offshoot of Roomba maker iRobot, has developed remotely controlled robots equipped with monitors for video chats.

At China's Guiyang Longdongbao International Airport, which serves inland Guizhou Province, a robot rolls around on patrol to simultaneously check up to 10 people within a 5-meter radius for fevers. It uses high-resolution cameras to detect face masks -- or the lack of them.

Data collected is sent in real time to a control center. The robots operate both automatically and via remote control, reducing infection risk.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has developed a remotely controlled medical robot that brings medicine and food to the patient's bedside. Hospital testing has already begun.

Global sales of service robots will grow 40% to roughly 500,000 units this year, Deloitte Tohmatsu Group estimated in April -- up from the previously forecast 30%.

Robots that help humans avoid contact with one another are expected to drive the market. The pandemic has brought instant awareness to the utility of avatars and the latent demand for the technology.

Additional reporting by Masashi Isawa and Kosuke Shimizu in Tokyo.

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