New Robot Suit to Assist Japanese Farmers

"Lem," Robots-Dreams.com, January 10, 2008

The ‘catch phrase’ for Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology is “MORE SENSE” which is derived from “Mission Oriented Research and Education giving Synergy in Endeavors toward a Sustainable Earth.” The university traces its own roots back to 1874 and Japan’s Meiji Restoration period, and has been chartered as a full fledged university since 1949.

Capturing the spirit of that inspirational catch phrase, a university team lead by Professor Shigeki Toyama formally announced the development of a robot suit they hope will dramatically ease the burden on agricultural field workers as well as other manual labor intensive jobs.

Developed at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology graduate school, with support from the Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the new robot suit attempts to address the challenges faced by Japan’s aging, and difficult to replace, rural farm population.

Unlike larger countries like the US, Canada, Russia, and China, Japan has almost no flat easy to mechanize farm land. The vast majority of Japanese agriculture takes place on small, irregularly sized plots tucked into rough volcanic terrain. This makes it almost impossible to introduce large scale corporate farming techniques.

Some mechanization has been implemented. For example, many Japanese rice farmers use tractors and other equipment that would look like toys if they were placed next to their overseas counterparts. Yet, given the small size of the fields, and small scale farming operations, these devices are extremely effective.

Yet, the vast majority of Japanese farming still requires extensive manual labor. Planting, tending, and harvesting fruit and vegetables can be back breaking work. Just take a look at a Japanese daikon (giant radish) and imagine what it takes to pull one of those huge vegetables out of the earth.

The new power assist robot suit was specifically designed to multiply the productivity of workers using it, while minimizing the strain on their waist, hips, and arms. The suit includes 8 motors on its rigid ABS resin frame structure and weighs 18 kg (just under 40 pounds), yet carries most of its own weight and places a minimum load on the operator.

The team faced several design obstacles including miniaturing the suit to make it easy to wear and operate in the field for long periods; the development of custom sensors; and movement, torque, and rate control of the motors and linkages to match the operator. The latter was of the utmost importance since if the suit didn’t operate with fluid, natural movement then the operator would always feel that they were fighting against it.

The next set of challenges for the team are to improve the suit power supplies and controls to increase operating range, portability, and time. Active field tests performing actual farming tasks while measuring operator efficiency and degree of fatigue are planned. They expect the new robot suit to be in use by 2012, both for agricultural and other similar operations.

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