Robots at iREX 2015

The 21st International Robot Exhibition, also known as iREX 2015, took place December 2-5, 2015 at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center. The exhibition is held every 2 years in Japan, and at the event a group of mostly Japanese companies try to showcase their latest robotic products and capabilities. Under the theme “Making a Future with Robot”, the exhibition was broadly divided into two main categories: Industrial Robots and Service Robots.

Starting with the iREX 2015 exhibition poster – featuring a monkey robot along with a human baby, which makes one wonder about what kind of robotic future is being envisioned by the event organizers! – and continuing with the robots and other research work being exhibited, nothing stood out as being absolutely groundbreaking, illuminating, or impactful that could elevate Japanese robotic companies into a global leadership role. Many of the capabilities displayed at the show could be characterized as imitations or catch-up products, with many of the best innovations already available elsewhere in the world.

In the Service Robot Zone, elderly and personal care were the main areas of focus, highlighting the robot’s job as the system for rehabilitation treatment and assistance. Toyota’s HSR (Human Support Robot) was on display, highlighting the concept of assisting the elderly or physically challenged person in their day-to-day activities. This robot has three basic modes: pick up, fetch, and manual control. Toyota believes that, in the future, the HSR robot will coexist with family members in the home and improve the overall quality of life.

Panasonic, one of the largest Japanese electronics producers, is seriously looking at the growing robotics market in the service and agricultural sectors. At the exhibition, the company demonstrated HOSPi, HOSPi-Rimo, and a tomato harvesting robot to the public. The HOSPi robot is designed to administer medication in the hospital environment automatically. HOSPi-Rimo, which is under development, is designed to provide communication and information services at railway stations, airports, and reception desks.

The Industrial Robots Zone was inhabited by robots of various shapes and sizes designed and developed for manufacturing, assembly, and inspection processes. The concept of collaborative robots is getting a lot of attention from Japanese industrial automation and robotics companies. In fact, many of the big companies were showcasing the collaborative capabilities of their robots, along with other non-collaborative traditional industrial robots. There were minor improvements in the speed and autonomy of many of these units, but still the reliability factor for real-time collaboration was not very impressive from our perspective.

Kawasaki demonstrated a dual-arm SCARA robot named duAro. This 130 centimeter tall robot has a 60 centimeter square base area requirement and can fit into any workspace occupied by a human. Kawasaki plans to market the robot to factories and offices in emerging economies.

From Yaskawa, there was a new blue colored robot on display, Motoman HC10, which is the first collaborative robot from the company that uses the international standard ISO 10218-1.

Fanuc showcased its new CR-series of collaborative robots CR-35iA, CR-4iA, CR-7iA and CR-7iA/L.

In addition to the Japanese companies, exhibitors included ABB (displaying Roberta for the first time under the ABB brand), Kuka, Kawada, Rethink Robotics, and Universal Robots.

Some new players in the domain of collaborative robots were present with their interesting robot designs.  These were Techman Robot from Taiwan and Life Robotics from Japan, both of which were able to demonstrate the potential of their robots.

The Japanese robotics community’s obsession for humanoids is well known, and it is impossible to imagine that a Japanese robot show such as iREX could go by without such robots on display. NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization), a Japanese government agency, displayed three disaster response robots – HRP-2, Jaxon, and Hydra – although it was unclear what the vision and future plans for such robots might be. The biggest question is when exactly these robots could actually become capable enough to provide humans with assistance during a disaster.

One of the star attractions of the show was a very odd-looking, remote-controlled replica of Leonardo da Vinci, developed by Osaka University. What is the purpose of this robot? According to the information available from Osaka University, the robot is designed to inform children throughout the world about robot technology. We were left wondering how Da Vinci himself might have reacted if he were around today.

Apart from all of these examples, several familiar robots were on display such as Pepper, Actroid, and NAVii (from Fellow Robots). And as usual, there were robotic toys for entertainment and education like PremaidAI (a dancing desktop robot), Sota (a social talking robot), and Orizuru (a remote controlled flying paper crane).

In terms of demonstrating advancements in robotics technology and product development, iREX 2015 was just okay or maybe below average. It created enthusiasm among young visitors and companies who are new to robotics, however somewhere along the way, this mega event failed to convey the meaningful, impactful and impressive robotic capabilities that could take the world of robotics to a new dawn.

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