Friday, December 21, 2007

'Practical' robot wins in Japan

A mechanical arm that can grab 120 items a minute from a conveyor belt won Japan's Robot of the Year award Thursday, defeating a dozen flashier finalists, including a walking humanoid and a transparent torso for simulating surgery.

The government prize is the latest effort in an aggressive campaign to trumpet Japan's robotics technology as the nation's best vehicle to growth.

The award, now in its second year, sent a clear message that utility and business, rather than entertainment or academia, are at the forefront of the robotic push. Last year, a vacuum-cleaner robot won the contest.

Entries ranged from parts and Mindstorms software from Danish toy maker Lego Group to an industrial robot from Fuji Heavy Industries - maker of Subaru cars - a container-on-wheels that can lug 440 pounds of pharmaceuticals.

The three assembly-line mechanical arms from Fanuc that won were distinguished for their practicality. They are already being used at food and pharmaceutical plants, where sanitation is critical and human error can be disastrous, said Ryo Nihei, a Fanuc manager.

Swiveling frenetically, they analyzed digital images of items scattered randomly on a swiftly moving conveyor belt and picked up the items using suction cups that blow air in and out at their tips. They then worked together to line up the items in rows inside boxes.

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