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Next 10 years crucial for Japan's nursing-care robot industry

Palro teaches exercises to elderly patients at Fujisawa Hospital in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture.

TOKYO -- Hopes remain high that Japan's robot technology will someday replace medical and nursing-care givers.

     In the future, when a patient awakes in a hospital, he or she might hear a gentle voice close to their ears. "You seem to be in good condition," the voice will say. The patient will open his or her eyes and see a doctor's face in the monitor of a robot.

     A sensor worn around a wrist like a watch will have sent blood pressure and body temperature data to the hospital during the patient's slumber. Wearing a powered exoskeleton suit, which boosts strength, the infirm patient might even hustle down stairs to take a shower.

     All the technologies implied here have long been under development or testing. They could be realized in advanced countries in 10 years.

     In Japan, nursing care is needed by 6.3% of 70- to 74-year-olds, 26.9% of 80- to 84-year-olds and nearly 70% of people over 90, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Robots and information and communications technologies could replace younger people as main care providers in the future.

     "It is expected that Japan will lead the world in this field," said Kazuo Tanishita, executive director at Commons for Medicine and Engineering Japan, a Tokyo association.

     The government's revised Japan Revitalization Strategy, released in June, talks of achieving "a new industrial revolution driven by robots" and mentions the use of robots for medical and nursing-care services. According to an estimate by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the domestic market for nursing-care robots will expand from 19.1 billion yen ($166 million) in 2015 to 391 billion yen by 2025.

     Fuji Soft conducted a demonstration test with Palro, a humanoid robot, at a hospital in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, in early October. In the test, the 40cm-tall robot showed elderly patients how to exercise. "Push up your shoulders," Palro commanded. "Now drop them."

     "I was surprised because the robot's movements were just like a human's," said a 69-year-old woman who took part in the test. "The robot will eventually be entrusted with exercise guidance for elderly people," said Junji Uetake, general manager of field sales for the company's robot division.

     The government last year designated Kanagawa Prefecture as a Comprehensive Special Zone for Local Revitalization. Small equipment that supports medical rehabilitation and a system that uses microwaves to watch over patients, as well as Palro, are being developed in the prefecture.

     "We want to make the prefecture a center for robot development projects in which companies, universities and medical institutions cooperate," a prefectural government representative said. "We can then also expect more jobs to be created."

     Toyota Motor has jointly developed a walking rehabilitation robot with Fujita Health University, and plans to start clinical studies later this year. The robot uses the industrial robot and control technologies used on the automaker's car production lines. "Looking hard at the future, we would like to make this kind of robot one of our strong businesses," said Akifumi Tamaoki, general manager of Toyota Motor's partner robot division.

     "Japan leads the world in the basic technology for robots," said Yukio Honda, professor at the Osaka Institute of Technology, who served as head of Panasonic's robot development center. However, "the country could fall behind in commercialization if appropriate measures are not taken."

     With regard to medical and nursing-care robots, Japan has to train personnel and develop rules. "There are few workers proficient at operating robots in the medical and nursing-care fields," said Yasuhito Sakaguchi, a manager at Daiwa House Industry, which went into the robot business in 2008. With its robot business remaining in the red, the company intends to enhance marketing and emphasize guiding staff at client institutions.

     Japan has yet to decide whether public insurance can subsidize the hiring of medical and nursing-care robots or whether compensation would be provided when accidents occur.

     Will Japan's advanced manufacturing technology help alleviate the burdens of aging and nursing-care? The next decade will be crucial.


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