Japan is unquestionably the robot capital of the world. They've invented robots that shop for you, cook for you, and even clean your toilets.
But Japan is graying. Just like we are in the U.S., Japan's baby boomers are heading towards 'that time' when disabilities connected with aging are requiring more attention and more supportive devices. Like wheelchairs.
Japan's Saitama University Professor Yoshinori Kobayashi was inspired to develop a robotic wheelchair that the disabled person doesn't wheel and a caretaker, or friend, or relative doesn't have to push. It actually heels like a dog and, in fact, this robot can even be trained to heel to your dog!
Robotic wheelchair follows its designated caregiver: image via amsvans.com
The special wiring and the camera provided for the robot lets it know the person, or pet, to follow (read "heel"). Kobayashi created the robotic wheelchair as a way to restore respect to the disabled person by providing more freedom of choice and direction. At any time, the disabled person can communicate with the robot via joystick, ordering it to stop following that person.
Unhitching from the caregiver or 'leader,' might be considered feisty behavior, but independence must be asserted. The desire to flirt with an interesting stranger, for example, is not diminished by one's physical limitations and doesn't require a caregiver's presence.
There is a growing population of boomers in Japan and a shrinking populations of caregivers, so Kobayashi's next project is to create a way for several robotic wheelchairs to follow one caregiver.
Right now, I'm imagining a German Shepard like Rin Tin Tin turning around and barking to his group of a dozen or so elderly persons in robotic wheelchairs. "Ruff ruff. Ruff ruff," he calls to get their attention. "Follow me." And then he turns around, confident he's being obeyed, and runs down a hill and through a pasture with a dozen or so disabled persons in their robotic wheelchairs following him.
Why my mind goes there, I don't know.
Keeping you posted...