Japanese automakers are interested in health robotics: Here’s how

ReWalk Robotics' system

ReWalk Robotics

Japanese automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. are reportedly turning their focus to health robotics to help the country’s rapidly aging society.

Japan faces dwindling demand for cars and its falling population has yielded labor shortages and pension squeezes. Toyota today launched a rental service for its walk assist system, which helps stroke survivors learn how to walk again.

Honda launched its walking assist “robotic legs” in 2015.

“If there’s a way that we can enable more elderly people to stay mobile after they can no longer drive, we have to look beyond just cars and evolve into a maker of robots,” Toshiyuki Isobe, chief officer of Toyota’s Frontier Research Center, told Reuters. “Be it robots or cars, if there’s a need for mass produced robots, we should do it with gusto,” Isobe said.

Japan’s population is made up of more elderly residents compared to the rest of the world – the number of people aged 65 or older accounted for nearly 27% of the population in 2015, versus the global average of about 8.5%.

Around the world, sales of robots for elderly and handicap assistance are expected to increase substantially over the next 20 years, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

As the population of Japan has grown older, car sales have fallen 8.5% between 2013 and 2016.

Toyota is still competing to develop self-driving cars and has committed $1 billion to a robotics and artificial intelligence research center.

Isobe told the news outlet that developing robots took Toyota outside of its comfort zone and it took the company more than 10 years to bring its walk assist system to market.

“The biggest challenges have been in determining the needs of the robot market, which is relatively new, and to ensure that our products are safe,” Isobe said.

Industry experts said that automakers are well placed to compete in the health robotics space with companies like ReWalk Robotics.

“Cars operate using engines and other components which enable mobility and control,” Nagayoshi Nakano, research VP at Gartner Research’s IoT Center of Excellence, said Reuters. “On top of that, many of them have been partnering with the likes of Google and other companies looking at applying artificial intelligence, which will put them in a strong position to compete in robot services for the elderly.”

Material from Reuters was used in this report. 

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