Meet the robots of the Tokyo Olympics
Image credit: Alamy
The postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games gives Japan an opportunity to showcase its expertise in robotics and autonomous vehicles.
Developed by automaker Toyota, the Tokyo robots will be deployed in specific roles during the delayed 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, but the project is expected to demonstrate their potential for wider application in everyday life.
Toyota, the worldwide partner of the Games, has a mission statement to amplify and augment human capabilities through its suite of robots. “The Tokyo 2020 Games are a unique opportunity for us to display Japanese robot technology,” says Hirohisa Hirukawa, leader of the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project. “This project will not simply be about exhibiting robots, but showcasing their practical real-life deployment helping people. So, there will not only be sports at the Tokyo 2020 Games, but some cool robots at work to look forward to as well.’”
The official mascots of the games are two robots capable of expressive human interaction. They will act as meeters and greeters, and provide the inevitable selfie opportunities to the few spectators able to attend the Games in person. The diminutive puppet-sized blue Miraitowa and pink Someity are large-eyed cute-bots who will welcome athletes and visitors to the venues. The remote-controlled robotic entertainers are especially designed to appeal to children. They are hardly advanced robotics, but an on-board camera recognises faces and facial expressions and can respond with blinking eyes, head nods and handshakes.
T-HR3 is a life-size humanoid robot that has been under development since 2017. Tomohisa Moridaira leads the Toyota research and development group, which works on both the T-HR3 and the mascot robots. Both are remotely controlled during their interaction with humans and mirror the movements of their human ‘handlers’. “The delay of Tokyo 2020 has enabled us to continue to improve the T-HR3. We have cut down the weight in the arms and legs of the Master Manoeuvring System to make it easier to use by the operator who experiences their interaction with T-HR3 via VR goggles,” says Moridaira. “We now have much better haptic feedback. Controllers say that it’s like using their real hand, with real sensations.” Walking the robot is simple and uses training shoes souped-up with multiple sensors including accelerometers to convey instructions to the robot.
According to Toyota, the T-HR3 will be able to high-five athletes and even hold a conversation. “With a view to the future, we believe that there will be a high demand for robots that can accomplish delicate tasks in safe interactions with humans,” Moridaira adds. “These robots have been designed with redundant degrees of freedom, meaning that most of its joints can continue to operate even if a few components stop working.” Essentially, the mascots and T-HR3 are avatar robots that are controlled by remote human operators via VR and an exoskeleton that the remote robot will mirror.
Developed by the Toyota Research Institute in the US, T-TR1 is a telepresence robot that will allow some of those unable to attend in person, i.e. most of the world’s population, to interact with athletes virtually. A tall, vertical screen displays a live image of the remote participant, and a camera mounted on top will give a sense of being there. If you are lucky enough to be invited to use the wheeled communicator, Toyota says that users will be able to move around a venue with the robot displaying a near life-size representation of themselves.
Next in team Toyota robot is a mechanical waiter and accessibility enabler – Delivery Support Robot, or DSR. DSR will deliver food and drink to spectators in some of the wheelchair-accessible seats and is commanded by an app. Its partner, Human Support Robot, will guide those guests needing mobility assistance to their seats and help them to freely enjoy the competition by providing timely event information. The 500 seats served by these robots at the track and field events during both the Olympic and Paralympic games mean that thousands of people will be assisted by them. “We believe that the robots will help spectators in wheelchairs to enjoy watching the events without any restrictions, to soak up the atmosphere inside the stadiums and to feel the excitement of sport,” says Nobuhiko Koga, chief officer of the Frontier Research Centre at Toyota.
Looking much like miniature cars, on the actual athletic field of play special-use robots will act as Field Event Support robots, following operations staff and autonomously navigating to fetch javelins or shot puts thrown by competitors. The aim is to reduce both the time taken to retrieve throwing event items, and the numbers of staff deployed in this area, speeding up the competition. These robots have been developed by Toyota in conjunction with the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Outside the main arenas the job of transporting athletes and support staff such as coaches and team managers to and from their accommodation goes to the Toyota e-Palette. This is an autonomous vehicle that will provide a circular loop service transport for the Olympic and Paralympic villages, ferrying athletes to and from the main stadia. Capable of carrying up to 20 passengers, or four wheelchairs and seven standing passengers at capacity, for safety reasons one operator will ride at all times in case human intervention is required. To keep stress levels low, the vehicles feature relaxing and calming lights and colour schemes and will play no music. As the wide door opens at stops, more than half of the cabin air is ventilated, and antiviral coatings and films are used on frequent-touch points to prevent Covid-19 transmission.
At the heart of all Toyota designs is ‘genchi genbutsu’ – going to the source to get the facts. During the development of the e-Palette, Toyota went through a series of continual improvements after feedback from test riders spanning the range from exceptionally tall basketball players to wheelchair users. To accommodate the diversity of users, interior handrails and the height of seats can be changed as needed. Each vehicle is 5.25m long, 2m wide and 2.76m tall, and can run for 150km before needing a charge. We are told that the e-Palettes accelerate and decelerate exceptionally smoothly, according to a Toyota spokesperson, “as if a veteran driver was at the wheel”.
So far, so autonomous. The clever bit is in the fleet operational system that controls the interactions of multiple vehicles featuring the Just-in-Time Mobility service. There are two components to this – the Autonomous Mobility Management System (AMMS) that dispatches vehicles when needed, to where they are needed, and in the numbers needed. There is a pre-planned route frequency, but if numbers of passengers begin to build up at a particular bus stop, AMMS modifies the schedule, sending out additional e-Palettes in real-time, easing congestion and reducing waiting time. AMMS also prevents bunching or uneven spacing when additional vehicles are added into the mix, so no more three buses coming along at once.
If any faults occur, those vehicles automatically return themselves to the depot and replacements are sent out. A single person at the operation’s control centre can monitor and manage several vehicles at once, alowing safe operation with fewer workers. E-Palettes have been designed the opposite way to conventional cars, with the software platform designed first, then the hardware built second. After the Games is over, Toyota plans to explore the use of the e-Palette model to solve the problem of delivery driver shortages by deploying them as mobile delivery lockers, and even mobile shops serving homebound customers.
Undoubtedly this collection of robots will showcase Toyota’s expertise in a practical demonstration of robots interacting safely and dependably with humans at many levels, even if it is not at the cutting edge of advanced robotics. The eyes of the world will be on Tokyo so it is understandable that not too many risks will be taken. However, there is little doubt that Toyota’s fleet of mechanical helpers and entertainers will capture the imagination of viewers around the world as well as the lucky few who will be able to encounter them in person.
If cutesy small robots are not your thing, just south of Tokyo is the port of Yokohama, which will host the baseball and softball competitions. The nearby Yamashita Pier is home to a 1:1 replica of a fictional Gundam robot (pictured below). The very antithesis of cute, the 25-tonne, 18.2m-tall animatronic robot was brought to life by an inter-disciplinary team of roboticists, engineers, and creatives. Its hands alone are 2m long. Built by the Gundam Factory on site, the Mobile Suit Gundam first appeared in an anime series in 1979. The challenge was to bring such an iconic robot to life without disappointing legions of the fictional character’s fans worldwide.
Akinori Ishii has been the technical director on the project since 2018. He played with Gundam plastic models as a schoolboy. “Developing Gundam was a dream project for me.” Masaki Kawahara, creative director at the Gundam Factory, was in charge of the overall design of the colossus, a replica of its fictional self. When asked about the technical challenges in the build, he said: “It has many motors and driving gears inside the mechanism, but we had to focus on the aesthetic as well, designing something that looked authentic, but that had spaces, shapes to fit the motors and gears inside. It also had to be light enough to move.”
The gigantic robot, model number RX-78F00, has 18 flexible joints in its hands alone, plus 24 other moving joints, enabling it to walk, turn its head and raise its arms among other moves, but extraordinarily for something of its size and weight, the robot can kneel. It is particularly impressive when lit up at night.
RX-78F00 performs twice an hour, and visitors can go up into its towering gantry to a walkway and look down on to this impressive feat of engineered anime.
Panasonic subsidiary Atoun will be showcasing its back-friendly exoskeleton (pictured below) at Tokyo 2020. Weighing in at less than 5kg, the wearable robot has sensors on the waist and lower back that determine the user’s movements. The Atoun Model Y was originally designed to help protect workers’ backs from repetitive lifting movements in logistics or in factory and agricultural settings.
One sensor senses the posture of the wearer and is mounted near the lower back in the frame of the exoskeleton. Additional angle sensors are mounted on the waist and all combine to assess the wearer’s movement. Compact high-efficiency brushless motors are used to assist the wearer by pulling or pushing in the correct places at the shoulders or the thighs depending on their task. When the wearer begins to walk the angle sensor at the waist detects this, and the motor assist is turned off until needed again. Its design reduces strain on the lower back by up to 10kg-force.
Following a successful trial at the Manchester 2020 Para Powerlifting World Cup the wearable will be used by support staff who repeatedly have to lift, adjust and handle the weights on the power bars to be lifted by the competitors. It will also be used behind the scenes in the airport for luggage handling; and in the athlete’s village for transporting luggage.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.