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Toyota's New Butler Robot Hangs From the Ceiling

The robot is one of several prototypes unveiled by the Toyota Research Institute this week.

Toyota has showcased an impressive vision of the future of housekeeping robotics with its latest research, via its research arm, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI).

One of the standouts from the company's unveiling is a prototype robot that hangs from the ceiling like a bat — so as to take up practically no floor — while it carries out household chores for the elderly.

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Tackling a broad societal issue with assistive robotics

Over the next three decades, the United Nations predicts that the global population over the age of 65 will more than double due to higher life expectancy.

In order to help solve problems that may arise from this broad societal issue, TRI is working on developing home-based assistant robots that can fit seamlessly into the home and carry out daily chores. 

Their aim is to give assistance to the elderly at home and, in doing so, allow more people to avoid having to go to care homes.

Toyota's New Butler Robot Hangs From the Ceiling
Source: TRI Robotics

The most eye-catching of the prototypes unveiled at TRI's global online press event is undoubtedly their ceiling-mounted gantry robot, which was designed after developers visited the homes of elderly Japanese people and concluded that robots would take up too much floor space.

Their solution, simply, was to invert the space the robot would occupy by having it hang from the ceiling while it carried out its tasks.

"What if instead of needing a robot to navigate the cluttered floor, it could travel on the ceiling instead, and be tucked out of the way when it’s not needed?" explained Dan Helmick, co-lead of robotics fleet learning at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), during the online presentation.

Toyota's New Butler Robot Hangs From the Ceiling
Source: TRI Robotics

As well as the gantry robot, TRI also showcased a "soft bubble gripper" — similar to this robotic hand capable of gently holding a jellyfish — that uses air-filled cushions to lightly grab objects.

The research institute also unveiled a floor-based mobile home-assistant robot and a dishwashing robot with plastic grippers.

Toyota's New Butler Robot Hangs From the Ceiling
Source: TRI Robotics

TRI's research shows how the institute — which was originally established in 2015 with $1 billion investment, as per The Verge — is using virtual reality (VR) to train its robots. Humans demonstrate a household task using VR, and these movements are then programmed into the robots via machine learning.

In order to conduct their research, TRI built a "mock home" research lab that allows them to test the robots in a kitchen, dining area, bathroom, and living room space similar to those found in a real home.

Guided by the Japanese notion of Ikigai

It's worth stressing that these robots are still very much in the prototype stage and we're not likely to see these in our homes any time soon. However, it is heartening to see such a human-centric approach to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

In fact, TRI says that their research into robotics is guided by the Japanese notion of Ikigai, the idea that every person’s life should have meaning and purpose.

Toyota's New Butler Robot Hangs From the Ceiling
Source: TRI Robotics

"Studies of Ikigai teach us that we feel most fulfilled when our lives incorporate work that we love and that helps society," Gill Pratt, CEO of TRI and Chief Scientist for Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC), explained in a press release.

Toyota's New Butler Robot Hangs From the Ceiling
Source: TRI Robotics

"To enable more people to achieve their Ikigai, TRI is pursuing new forms of 'automation with a human touch' (known as "Jidoka" in the Toyota Production System) to develop capabilities that amplify, rather than replace, human ability with the goal of bringing deep happiness and fulfillment to all people," Pratt continued.

If you want to have a look at the home-based assistant robot prototypes in more detail, you can watch the 360-degree virtual presentation video below.

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