Japanese store hires ‘robot clerk’ to ensure people follow Covid rules


The robot approaches and warns customers who are not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing protocol, in the latest advance in Japan’s burgeoning service robot industry.

shop in Japan has deployed a robot to check if customers are wearing face masks, as the country prepares for another wave of Covid-19 infections.

Robovie, developed by the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) in Kyoto, uses lasers to measure social distancing and politely asks shoppers to cover up and guides them around the store.

ATR envisions that it will be used to replace staff in stores and help reduce contact between people amid the pandemic.

Fears of a third wave of infections appear to be gathering momentum in the country after a record 1,660 new cases were logged last Thursday.

The trial began last week at the merchandise store for professional football club Cerezo Osaka and will run until the end of the month with the possibility of being extended.

The robot clerk is programmed to carry out two functions – to respond to customer requests, such as guiding customers who are looking for products, and to provide a “warning service” that calls attention from the robot and alerts a customer that is performing an “unsuitable action,” such as forgetting to wear a mask or not maintaining a safe social distance when queuing.

Equipped with the store’s layout beforehand, the robot packs a camera and sensors to track customer movements and measures spatial information using laser beams as it patrols.

In a statement on the initiative, ATR said that they have been conducting research and development toward the “realisation of a symbiotic society between humans and robots,” in which “robots blend into people’s daily lives” and provide various customer-related services.

“Demonstration experiments of a clerk robot that simultaneously provides customer service and alert service while moving in a small environment such as inside a store is the most advanced attempt in the world,” ATR added.

They hope that if the trial is successful, further enhancements will be made to accelerate service robot development in the near future.

Service robot industry goes viral

Robovie is just the latest development in robotic technology that Japan has enlisted in the fight against the pathogen, as the pandemic has prompted a new wave of service robots emerge from the confines of factories to handle disinfection, transportation and other essential tasks necessary to maintain social distancing and safety.

Japan’s socio-economic trends have only accelerated the demand for technologies that can fill the void left by a shrinking workforce and creaking medical care systems, which have mounted over the past decade as the country struggles to cope with a rapidly aging population.

To cope with isolation brought on by the pandemic, “healing robots” such as the humanoid Lovot developed by Groove X Inc. and Sony Corp.’s Aibo robotic dog have seen a sharp increase in sales, particularly from families who gift the automatons to their older parents as substitutes for physical human contact.

When spring graduation ceremonies were cancelled because of the pandemic, students at one Japanese school were able to attend remotely by controlling avatar robots dressed in graduation caps and gowns while logged on at home.

Teleoperated devices are doing more than ever before. The Japanese firm Telexistence uses a Model-T robot that is designed to allow people to do physical labour in supermarkets and other locations from the comfort of their own homes, including food deliveries.

And at a factory south of Japan’s Toyota city, robots have started sharing the work of quality-control inspectors, accelerating a shift from the manufacturer’s vaunted “go and see” system that revolutionised mass production in the 20th century.

Many other countries have also looked to robotic technologies to help contain the virus.

Firms in the US and China and elsewhere have raced to produce service robots to help relieve the pressure on health workers treating victims in infectious wards, as well as for security needs and even entertainment purposes.


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