Japan's Automatic Robot Snowplow - An Update On Yuki Taro

Where's a cute automatic Japanese robot snowplow when you need one? When nasty nor'easters like February 2013's “Nemo” blanket huge stretches of America's northeast with up to three feet of snow, a GPS-equipped robotic snow shovel like Yuki Taro would come in mighty handy.

Yet 7 years after the rounded, goggle-eyed, Pikachu-like “Yuki Taro” autonomous snow removal robot made his, er, its debut at the 2005 Aichi Expo we're still waiting for the production version. What's up with that?

Let's start with a look back to the robot's origins. Yuki Taro was conceived when Expo organizers announced they were accepting entries for the “Project for the Practical Application of Next-Generation Robots,” prototypes of which would be demonstrated at the Expo.

The Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau in cooperation with New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) and the Engineering Department at Yamagata University designed and built Yuki Taro not only as a practical snow-shoveling machine to benefit residents of Japan's “Snow Country” but also to serve as a shining example of industry-academia-government cooperation.

Yuki Taro shines indeed – its people-friendly design has evoked comparisons to Pikachu and it's likely the designers had the cute yellow, black & red Pokemon character in mind when designing the robot's outer body. Looks are just the beginning, however. Yuki Taro was engineered to work and work well in unfriendly weather conditions.

A continuous compression screw behind the front shovel takes in snow, compresses it, and ejects rectangular solid frozen bricks from the rear. Each brick measures 500 x 300 x 120mm (20 x 12 x 4.8 inches) and weighs around 13 kg (28.5 lbs). It can hold a stack of bricks weighing up to 100 kg (220 lbs) on its rear deck.

Yuki Taro operates automatically, guided by a GPS sensor that keeps it shoveling only where its programmed to shovel. An on-board DC48V battery powers the 400 kg (880 lb) machine at speeds up to 5 meters (16.4 ft) per minute. Blazing a 950mm (38 inch) wide swath with each pass, Yuki Taro can clear the average residential driveway in no time at all!

Fine and dandy... so where is it?? Yuki Taro seems to have been retired immediately after the 2005 Aichi Expo and no commercial manufacturer has taken up the task of moving from prototype to production version. Not even winning the Good Design Award in 2006 could sway skeptical investors.

Perhaps Yuki Taro's complexity doomed it from the start – it resembles NASA's Curiosity Mars rover more than a low-, medium or high tech snow shovel. Somebody's got to pay for Yuki Taro's omni-directional 30 frames per second VGA camera, obstacle recognition software, laser and ultrasonic range sensors, twin 400-watt servomotors, optional eyebrows and more.

Retail price estimates for Yuki Taro were in the 1 million yen (about $9,000) range seven years ago; figure in the usual lowball budget estimates and you're looking at pricing competitive to a compact car. Maybe the reference to a Mars rover hints at Yuki Taro's eventual true use... as a robot bulldozer for the chillier off-world colonies. Quick, launch the blimp! (via Cal's Sapporo, Future Is Mild, RDI Japan, Estellsa, and Poison Apple)

A video of the Yuki-Taro is available here:

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