Operated by the Tokyo Fire Department (TFD), the machine is designed to extract disaster victims from areas too hazardous for human rescue workers. The robot uses pincer-like hands to lift victims onto a built-in conveyor belt that pulls them inside until they reach safety.
The remote-controlled device appears to be a compact version of TFD's Robo-Q rescue robot, which is also equipped with cameras and sensors that enable it to see through smoke and measure environmental conditions such as concentrations of combustible gas.
As Japanese consumers become ever more "fussy" over food safety issues, there is a growing demand for technology that improves food quality. To ease the minds of health-conscious meat-eaters, researchers at Japan's National Institute of Animal Health (NIAH) have developed a convenient method for identifying cattle infected with mad cow disease, simply by measuring the brain waves they produce in response to audio stimuli.
To develop and test the new method, the researchers infected 11 healthy cows with mad cow disease and observed the onset of symptoms and changes in brain activity. Mad cow disease (a.k.a. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE) is a fatal infectious disease that affects the central nervous system of cattle (and humans), turning the brain into a sponge-like substance. Symptoms of the disease include loss of muscle control, inability to stand or walk properly, agitation, and red eyes.
Approximately 24 months after infection, the 11 test cows began to exhibit the typical physical signs of BSE. However, at around 22 months after infection -- before the physical symptoms became evident -- the researchers discovered that the brains of the infected cows had a delayed reaction to sound. In all 11 mad cows, the brain waves elicited in response to audio stimuli were a few tenths of a millisecond slower than in healthy cows.
The researchers believe the acoustic nerves responsible for transmitting sound impulses to the brain became damaged as the disease progressed, resulting in a delayed response time. By using a device that measures this delay, ranchers can identify mad cows in their herds, the researchers suggest.
While the newly developed method is still less accurate than conventional lab testing of brain samples taken from carcasses, it does make it easier to detect possible infection at an early stage, before outward signs of the disease appear.
The researchers, who plan to study the data further and improve the accuracy of the test, eventually hope to develop a portable version of the device.
In an unsettling sign of the times, the new "Smoke Block" emergency mask by Tokyo-based Rescuenow, Inc. is being touted as an effective means of protection against hydrogen sulfide, the trendy "detergent suicide" gas created by mixing household cleaners, which has claimed hundreds of lives across Japan in recent months. The mask has a special three-layer filter that keeps your lungs clean for up to 20 minutes, allowing you ample time to flee from smoke and/or toxic fumes. A full-face mask sells for 20,000 yen ($185) and a half-face version goes for 14,000 yen ($130).
In an effort to accelerate the development of next-generation automobiles and robots, Toyota is turning to some of Japan's top neuroscientists. According to a December 14 announcement, the automaker has teamed up with the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) in a 20-year project aimed at researching the human brain and developing neurotechnology-based auto safety systems, sophisticated robots, and machinery that users can operate with their minds.
Toyota and RIKEN will conduct the brain research at the recently established RIKEN BSI-Toyota Collaboration Center, which will initially be staffed by 30 researchers, 5 of whom are from Toyota. The research will fall into three broad categories: (1) neuro-driving research, which focuses on the mental processes at work as drivers perceive, judge and react to the external environment, (2) neuro-robotics research, which focuses on how the brain processes information, and (3) mind-health research, which focuses on the physiology of the brain and nervous system and the relationship between the brain and physical health.
Through the neuro-driving research, which is expected to shed new light on how the brain works as drivers perceive obstacles and operate their vehicles, Toyota ultimately hopes to develop auto safety technology that can completely prevent all traffic accidents.
In addition, the automaker explains that the purpose behind the neuro-robotics research is to develop advanced robots that can interact more effectively with humans. Toyota, which sees robotics as one of its core businesses in the future, has been stepping up efforts in recent years to develop "lifestyle support" androids for use in nursing and health care. The company also believes the research will lead to the development of brain-machine interfaces that allow users to operate equipment by thought.
Toyota explains that the decision to pursue brain research is driven by an ever-increasing demand for more sophisticated automotive and robot technology. With a better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms underlying human feelings, thoughts and actions, the company reckons it can get a head start in the race to develop the cars and robots of the future.
An autonomous robot janitor built by Subaru (Fuji Heavy Industries) and Sumitomo has landed a job cleaning the outdoor hallways of a new 14-story Bali-themed luxury apartment complex in Tokyo. Lovingly nicknamed 'Tondon' in an apparent reference to a legendary Balinese snake god, the robot is a close relative of RFS1, the autonomous floor cleaning robot that received Japan's 2006 Robot of the Year Award last December.
Like the RFS1, which currently cleans hallway floors inside ten Tokyo-area office buildings, Tondon works unsupervised and relies on an optical communication system to control the building's elevators, allowing it to move freely from floor to floor as needed. To improve the robot's ability to clean gritty outdoor surfaces, Tondon's makers have added a set of heavy-duty brushes designed to sweep up leaves and dirt from hallway floors and drains. Furthermore, Tondon's outer shell has been strengthened and waterproofed to protect its internal components from the elements, and it has been painted with a unique design to complement the apartment building's Bali-themed decor.
Tondon also has a number of safety features that help it better coexist with the building's residents, including proximity sensors that help prevent collisions with people, as well as bumper switches that stop the robot in its tracks when it is touched. A protective guard around the brushes prevents the robot from giving people unwanted shoeshines, while lamps and voice announcements provide ample warning when it is approaching.
A set of video cameras has also been added to the robot. With four cameras that record the robot's every move and a hard disk that stores the video feed, human overlords can keep close tabs on Tondon to make sure it doesn't nap on the job. The cameras can also be used for hallway surveillance, the company says, allowing the robot to double as a watchful security guard as it cleans.
Researchers from the University of Tokyo, Oita University, the Shimane Institute of Health Science and Delta Tooling, an industrial equipment manufacturer, have developed a prototype smart car seat capable of detecting when its occupant is on the verge of falling asleep. The seat was unveiled at a symposium held at the University of Tokyo on February 5.
The researchers began by studying the physiological signs of 100 sleepy subjects, focusing particularly on the changes in pulse and respiration that occur 10 minutes before falling asleep. They then developed a system of sensors that could both detect these changes and be embedded in the seat.
The seat is equipped with a pair of pulse-monitoring pressure sensors in the seat-back and a set of respiration-monitoring sensors underneath. The researchers successfully tested the system in a variety of simulated and actual driving conditions, and they claim it works effectively even when the driver is bundled in layers of clothing.
Previous drowsiness prediction systems that rely on physiological data require the subject to attach electrodes or other hardware to his or her body. And since these systems tend to be bulky, they have not seen widespread use in automobiles. However, unlike previous systems, this newly developed smart car seat does not require the driver to wear any special hardware -- it can detect drowsiness as long as the driver remains in the seat.
Though the seat can sense when the driver is sleepy, it is not yet equipped to respond. The next step will be to outfit the seat with an alarm function that is automatically activated when its occupant becomes drowsy. The researchers hope to make the smart seat commercially available in 5 years.
Robot manufacturer tmsuk, Kyushu University and the Kanazawa Institute of Technology have teamed up to develop a robot that can sniff out the smells that accompany fire. A public demonstration of the robot's new abilities was held at Kyushu University on February 21.
The researchers outfitted a 60-kilogram (132-pound), 112-centimeter (44-inch) tall Ubiko -- a tmsuk robot originally designed to serve as a temporary receptionist -- with a first-of-a-kind set of olfactory sensors specifically tuned to detect the odors of smoke and ash.
In the test, Ubiko, which moves on wheels and has a slightly humanoid appearance (albeit with a pair of triangular feline ears atop its head), was tasked with patrolling four rooms, each with a different smell. One room smelled of perfume, one smelled of garlic, one smelled of cigarettes, and one was odorless. When the robot smelled the room with ashtrays, it identified it as likely to catch fire and sent a wireless message to security.
Kiyoshi Toko, electronic engineering professor at Kyushu University, says, "We want to increase the accuracy of the sensors and create a fire-prevention robot that can detect subtle smells that humans cannot perceive."
For now, the robot has no fire-fighting skills except the ability to alert the authorities when it detects a funny smell. This is probably a good thing in an office environment, for example, where Ubiko might wreak havoc by spraying fire retardant on heavy smokers or on innocent employees who happen to visit smoky restaurants during their lunch breaks.
Sumitomo Osaka Cement and YRP Ubiquitous Networking Laboratory have developed cyber-concrete, a smart form of concrete embedded with RFID tags that can store data. Researchers developed a durable coating for YRP's "ucode" tags, which have a larger storage capacity than ordinary IC tags, and they developed a special reader that, when held near the concrete, retrieves the stored data and converts it into spoken form.
Sumitomo is set to begin field testing the technology at its cement factories this month, with the aim of making it available to large construction companies in the spring of 2007.
While the potential applications of cyber-concrete are endless, the companies are initially promoting it as a new tool for managing structural safety data. Cyber-concrete can store information about itself, such as when, where and how it was manufactured and data about strength and quality, making for more efficient and reliable safety inspection systems. This traceability data can be used by construction companies, inspectors, or tenants concerned about building safety.
Public concern for structural safety has risen with a recent building safety inspection scandal involving the discovery of falsified quake-resistance data for a number of buildings in Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Perhaps cyber-concrete will bring a little peace of mind, allowing people to bypass the shady inspectors and ask buildings directly how safe they are -- which is great as long as buildings have no reason to be dishonest.
And should you find yourself trapped under three floors of cyber-concrete after the Big One, at least you'll have something to talk to while waiting for the rescue bots to arrive.