It’s a terrifyingly simple idea. “We thought, what if you could stick legs on a keitai?” says TMSUK’s Tokyo Research Center Director Shin Furukawa. They did, and the result ain’t a cutesy Aibo or a nearly singing and faintly swinging Sony entertainment ‘bot, but boy is it practical. Here appears to be the world’s first fully functional, walking, talking home security robot Banryu or “Guard Dragon,” using a DoCoMo FOMA for its eyes and ears.It’s on sale now in Japan for JPY 1.98 million, or about $18,000. We think you’ll agree, this story really does have legs! Full Program Run-time 10:52
We were pretty impressed with the Banryu for the beauty of its simplicity (if not its design.) And we were happy to hear the almost rudely honest approach of Furukawa san, who eschewed the usual propaganda and told us he had no idea about the real potential of Japan’s robot market which is supposed to surge, have great potential, etc., according to marketing managers.
Furukawa admits that the Banryu is basic and has a long way to go in terms of capabilities and miniaturization. A quick look at some of Banryu’s specs bears this out.
Weighing in at 40 kg, Banryu is hardly svelte, and with a maximum speed of 15 meters per minute, appears most unlikely to place at any Robot competitions, let alone this year’s Olympics. Readers should note that the version we saw is a big step up from an earlier prototype also shown in the video from ROBODEX 2003 round the bay in Yokohama, which stomped along at only 3 meters per minute. Still, that’s fast enough to get round a room, if not a large department store and Dino (sans Fred Flintsone) can even manage some small steps for mankind (gaps of 150 mm).
Another thing that struck us is that despite its simplicity, the robot is fully functional and capable of some important tasks already. For example, as well as 360 degree vision, the version on sale now can already pick up changes in its surroundings and transmit alarms to its mistress or masters mobile. The infra-red sensor can see people, while the temperature and odor sensors are capable of sensing burning and temperatures above 50 degrees.
But it’s not all stink and fire: Our little dragonzzes (what next, robot hobbits?) also come in five colors, and will wag their tails whenever fresh batteries are inserted. We did not ask where.
Now, that’s not only useful, but a bit of a triumph when you think that Sony and Honda are said to be spending 10s of billions of yen on robot upgrades, especially when Tmsuk has less than 20 staff, making it much more like a venture company.
Banryu has three modes: “Super-Remote Control,” “Guard Dragon” and “Pet.” But as we note, Tmsuk clearly ISN’T trying to compete with Sony, who seem to have the doggy ‘bot market(and probably the patents) tied off to their corporate tree already. With the pet and human robot markets cornered, utility and function, if not quite design, appear to have won the day, because Banryu would seem to fill a socially useful role other than just pure (and increasingly brilliant) enter/edutainment and mimicry.
Furukawa sees Banryu as a pretty primitive version and vision of the future, but we also note Tsmuk has already come a long way: A prototype in 1997 used a PHS. There’s nothing wrong with that, except for speed issues. According to one report we’ve read, that model nearly did not pass go and went almost straight to jail; it apparently got itself arrested when Tmsuk was conducting tests to see if it could sell ice cream in a shopping center!
The next interesting thing for us were the possibilities that the company sees around the corner, particularly with remote education and fully-fledged mobile building security functions, although Furukawa admits that a lot of work needs to be done on all the mechanical and sensor technologies to make these sort of apps practical. Then of course, there are the missing 3G networks to provide the bandwith for more complex operations and interactivity.
Taking the toy out of the ‘bot has got to be a major conceptual breakthrough for Japan’s nascent robot industry, which has long been held to be one of the panaceas for the revival of the country’s consumer electronics technology manufacturing base.
But, given the advances needed, such complex robots are still probably 20-30 years off. Outside the home, we’d like readers to note that Tmsuk has already developed a remote controlled fire-fighting robot called Enryu “Support Dragon” that’s capable of rescuing trapped folks with two hydraulic arms that are each capable of lifting 500 kg. Theoretically, therefore, Enryu is the first robot that would be able to rescue both
We do have some bad news, however. When Furukawa said he hoped for competition, he was not perhaps bargaining on MOSTiTECH, a Korean firm that has just announced that it’s going to do what Korean firms are famous for – rivaling and beating Japanese technology at cheaper prices.
According to a report just out, MOSTiTECH from Korea claims its going to wheel out (literally, the yet-to-be christened K-bot doesn’t have legs) a wireless web connected, motion, heat and odor sensor equipped rival to our portly little mini dragon, that will cost all of $850. Perhaps more importantly, it has SK Telecom backing it.
Of course, the fact that Banryu’s putative rival only has wheels gives Japan’s little pet Dino Bot a literal leg up when it comes to checking things upstairs.
Let the battle begin!
— Sr. Editor Paul Kallender.