Last Update: Sunday, March 14, 2004. 2:51pm (AEDT)

Robot 'rovers' may help care for ageing population

Furry talking robot "carers" able to raise the alarm if their elderly owner needs help, will play a key role in helping the world's ever-growing ageing population, trials in Japan have shown.

As well as playing faithful companion to older people living alone, this new generation of "live-in" domestic robot will also provide invaluable daily help to the average family - performing tasks from managing the family schedule to problem-spotting to guard dog.

"The next generation of robots now coming on to the market will improve the daily life of our ageing population," Toshikazu Muroi from the Osaka Prefectural Government said.

Though many governments are beginning to grapple with the looming problem of facing ever-bigger ever-older legions of retirees, the issue is particularly acute in Japan, which has the biggest population of people aged 65 and over of the industrialised nations.

Mr Muroi said that recent trials carried out in the Osaka region highlighted that cuddly hi-tech carers had a very useful role in providing valuable companionship as well as monitoring the safety of their elderly owners.

The people taking part in the project "really liked the robots as they are like pets," Mr Muroi said.

The world centre for the robotic industry, Osaka sent a team of officials to the French Riviera city of Cannes this month to showcase the region's real estate and science park potential at the influential MIPIM international property market.

While industrial robots are already commonplace in factories around the world, used in the construction, welding and automobile businesses, animal pet robots, along with humanoids really resembling human beings, are just beginning to emerge.

Sony's Aibo entertainment robot dog has been a huge hit with children since its launch two years ago, while Honda Motor's Ashimo humanoid robot that walks just like a human being, can be seen dancing with a little girl in the car maker's latest commercial.

Honda plans to use Ashimo to entertain customers visiting its showrooms but the firm might also be able to use the robot to take the place of human personnel who have to work in dangerous places.

Outside industry, the three main emerging areas where robots have potential are in the home, for surveillance and in the medical arena, Mr Muroi said.

Robot floor cleaners are already commonplace in Japan and are also found in US homes.

The next step, already under development, is to enable them to move vertically as well as horizontally.

Elsewhere across the world, robot popularity is also growing, with global demand jumping by a best-ever 26 per cent in the first half of 2003 from a year earlier, according to the annual World Robotics Survey.

The survey underlined the widening use of robots outside industry.

"Robots are getting into more fields of appliances," Thilo Brodtmann said, managing director of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

Many of Japan's leading industrial and electronic giants, most of them based in and around Osaka, are involved in the push for robot power - Sanyo Electric for example is to launch a house sitter "Banryu" robot next month while Mitsubishi plans a multi-function robot domestic.

Designed to guard an empty house, Sanyo's Banryu robot looks more like a streamlined dinosaur than a cuddly pet, though it moves on all fours.

Remotely operated from a mobile phone, it can be commanded to walk and act menacingly as well as transmit real-time images of life inside the home.

Banryu automatically contacts the householder if its internal sensors detect a problem in the home.

Families who do not need a guard dog and would enjoy cohabitation with a more human-looking home-help will have to wait until spring next year when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries brings out its "wakamaru" multi-function robot.

As well as manageing the weekly schedule, the "wakamaru" will house-sit, spots problems and provide other information needed to run a smooth household.

Robots also offer potential in the medical field, where they can be used for nursing as well as for lifting and transporting patients.

Mr Muroi said nurse robots are being developed to take care of a patient's paperwork and record and monitor temperature and medical condition around the clock.

"They don't need to sleep", he said.

Robotic "patient transfer equipment" meanwhile is being perfected by Daihen that would enable patients suffering from conditions such as bone fractures or cerebral haemorrhages to be lifted and moved safely without changing their position or posture.

Another form of transport that could be a boon to the wheelchair-bound was unveiled late last year when Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University introduced the world's first two-legged walking robot capable of carrying an adult human being.

Few doubt today that robots are here to stay, but analysts say their popularity in the workplace or home is likely to hinge on price.

A wide range of colourful robot floor cleaners are on sale in shops around Japan but cost anything from 600 euros up to 10,000 euros.

One young woman said after visiting a Tokyo store with a view to buying one, "I'll wait for the prices to come down".

-- AFP