ANA, a major Japanese Airline, is throwing its weight behind telepresence technologies such as avatar-style robots, but also advanced technology that can relay much more than mere visual and audio information. We are CEATEC 2019 in Tokyo, Japan

Telepresence robots are nothing new. The stick-design with wheels at the bottom and a tablet-sized screen on top have been common for a while. But how ANA intends to use them is quite new.

Previous business models consisted of having individuals or companies buy and operate such telepresence robots. ANA wants to deploy and operate its fleet, and have people essentially pay for the service when they use it. ANA thinks that it would attract customers who would have never considered a purchase to start with.

A simple telepresence robot design

The details are scarce, and there are many logistical and business hurdles to overcome, so we will see how this shapes up.

The more technologically interesting demo at the ANA booth was the Tactile Telerobot, a telepresence robot that can relay the hand’s touch sensation and reproduce a human controller’s arm and hand mobility with high-precision.

The robot is built using some of the most advanced technologies from three companies: Haptex (gloves controller), Shadow (Robotic hand) and Syntouch (robotic fingertip sensor).

During the demo, the operator was picking up, moving, and placing fine and fragile objects such as plastic cups with astonishing precision. Such precision could, at some point, allow workers to work farther away from the toxic or irradiated environment, although the robot itself would be to withstand these conditions.

Perhaps the same equipment could be used for machine-learning by gathering data from a human operator performing tasks that would be “taught” to a robot later. Perceptive computing has gotten far enough that after being taught the basics, machines can adapt to slightly varying conditions.

It may seem strange that an Airline company would invest money into things that could negate the need for flying. However, ANA recognizes that there are situations where people can’t fly, and therefore would like to offer services to meet that demand. That’s part of Japan’s Society 5.0 vision.

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