TOKYO – First came the trumpet-playing robot. Now theres the violin virtuoso.
No, Toyota Motor Corp. isnt trying to establish a robot philharmonic. Its latest robotic creation, a 5-foot-tall humanoid that can perform Pomp and Circumstances on a violin, is a step toward what Toyota envisions as future market for partner robots that help out in everyday life.
President Katsuaki Watanabe unveiled the violin-playing robot and a robotic wheel chair here Thursday, declaring that similar robots would someday be a core business for Toyota.
The violin robot is an advancement over an earlier trumpet-tooting version from Toyota. And future robots are seen morphing into tour guides, medical assistants and household helpers.
Toyota plans to begin real life trials of such models next year, with an eye toward assessing their market potential in 2010, Watanabe said.
Sound like a whimsical detour from business as usual?
Not necessarily. Toyota says making robots will also lead to making better cars.
The technologies used in these robots can be shared with automobiles, Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said here while introducing the new robot strategy.
For example, the violin robots arms must be equipped with advanced pressure and movement sensors in order to stroke the bow just right and coax music from the violins strings.
Toyota sees that technology as key to the future of drive-by-wire cars, where computers translate pressure and movement from the drivers hand into electronic impulses.
The wheel chair robot, dubbed Mobiro for mobility robot, is essentially a Segway with a seat. But unlike the Segway, it can pilot itself autonomously using sensors to steer clear of obstacles. It also has a system keeping the seat level at all times, even over uneven terrain.
Watanabe says such sensor technology forms the foundations of the pre-crash safety systems currently being developed for vehicles. The level seat function is key to stability control in cars.
Meanwhile, voice and face recognition software used in robots can also be used to help assess whether a car driver is falling asleep at the wheel or inebriated, leading to better auto safety.
Another cross-over application is the actuator technology used in robots. It is usually compact and able to run on low power, traits that will increasingly be demanded in auto parts.
Toyota has about 100 people working on its robot project, but hopes to double that number in the next three years. It is also concentrating its robot R&D into a new facility at its factory in Hirose. But Watanabe wouldnt say how much Toyota is investing in the push.
Toyota isnt the only automaker turning to robots as an exercise in futuristic engineering.
Honda Motor Co. has had its own robot project for years and is most renowned for Asimo, a waist-high robot resembling a man in an astronaut suit.