New Train Station, New Testbed

At a new train station in Tokyo passengers now encounter and interact with robotics and artificial intelligence while passing in the daily commute. The station is used for testing, demonstrating and further developing autonomous systems in...

At a new train station in Tokyo passengers now encounter and interact with robotics and artificial intelligence while passing in the daily commute. The station is used for testing, demonstrating and further developing autonomous systems in cyber-physical environments. Will it become the new norm in society due to manpower shortages and Covid-19?

In Japan, the declining birthrate and aging population is resulting in a shortage of human resources, which is one of the country’s major societal challenges. Due to this, the government has initiated a range of policies and initiatives to meet these challenges. One of these initiatives is Society 5.0, which the Cabinet Office defines in the Fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan as “a human-centered society that achieves both economic development and solutions to societal challenges through a highly integrated system of cyberspace and physical space.” Efforts to address societal challenges and the transformation to Society 5.0 using AI and robots are now underway.

Takanawa Gateway Station recently opened in time for the planned 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this year.  At this station, a range of robot technologies are currently being tested and demonstrated in real life. First, three types of disinfection robots have started demonstration experiments in July or August, as a response to the needs related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The robots are “CLINABO CL02” co-developed by Nippon Signal and Cyberdyne, “Whiz” by SoftBank Robotics, and “PATORO” by ZMP.

“CLINABO CL02”, “Whiz”, “PATORO” from left: photos from East Japan Railway Trading Company

“CLINABO CL02” can clean and disinfect buildings, and its AI can recognize and memorize the shape of the building and the cleaning path with high accuracy. It also has a proprietary 3D camera that detects obstacles three-dimensionally in the direction of travel, allowing safe pauses and avoidance. “Whiz” is a dry vacuum AI cleaning robot and it can greatly reduce the number of viruses on the floor and in the air after cleaning. “PATORO” is a roving disinfectant robot. It has a front LCD screen that displays a variety of facial expressions and has speakers. It is equipped with a motor-driven sprayer to spray disinfectant solution. It is capable of automatic travel using multiple cameras and laser sensors and performs unmanned patrols.

In addition to these three AI robots, there are four kinds of transfer robots. The first is a luggage transport robot developed by Omron Social Solutions that will carry a customer’s luggage onto a carrier and guide them to their destination. The second is a catering robot by THK, the “SEED-Mover with Lifter.” It can also link it to an elevator and use it to move to a different floor. It is designed primarily to carry snacks and drinks, and it will transport them to a designated location on its own. The third is the “DANDY AUTO – PILOT” by HANAOKASHARYO. This is also intended for carrying snacks and drinks, but it is said that it can be used not only for flat floors but also for going up and down slopes. Finally, there is the “FRUTERA” by Androbotics. Inside this robot is a space for snacks and other things.  It uses Wi-SUN wireless communication, a technology based on radio waves and resistant to communication interference, to move to its destination.

“autonomous patrol robot”, “SEED-mover with Lifter”, “DANDY AUTO-PILOT”, “FRUTERA” from left: photos from East Japan Railway Trading Company

At the station, there is also an unmanned AI payment shop called “TOUCH TO GO”. At the time of entrance, the gate opens when customers stand in the entrance area. When ready to check out, customers stand in the payment area, where their goods and the purchase amount are displayed on the touch panel. After checking the contents of the display and making a cashless payment, the gate opens and customers can leave the store. Fifty sensor cameras have been installed inside so customers can see which items they picked up. Currently up to 10 people can enter at a time. The company that designed the store (also named “TOUCH TO GO”) aims to offer this system on a monthly basis so that it can be used as a solution for reducing the number of people in retail stores and restaurants.

This was one of the moves to make up for societal challenges such as the declining birthrate, aging population, and labor shortage in Japan with robots. However, since the beginning of this year, Corona virus has increased the need for social distance, and the need for non-contact has newly emerged. Robots can be used not only in train stations but also in airports, logistics facilities and office buildings. They are searching for “new normal” stations that can cope with viruses and manpower shortages, and are aiming to fully introduce them by fiscal 2024.

A visit to the Takanawa Gateway Station today gives a glimpse into the Society 5.0.

Shiori Schules and Michael Jacob