Over the next dozen years he watched in frustration as the da
Vinci, a rival endoscopic robot that U.S. regulators had already
approved, became a commercial success while his and other Japanese
prototypes languished in laboratories.
Japan, with the world's largest robot population, is now awakening
to a crisis as its lead in robotics – one of its last areas of
technological prominence - comes under threat from
better-coordinated efforts in the United States and Germany, as well
as Asian rivals South Korea and China.
As robots advance from the factory floor into homes, hospitals,
shops and even war zones, officials hope to spur a new "robotics
revolution" by rewriting rules that researchers say have stifled
"We think robotics can make Japan competitive again," said Atsushi
Mano, director of robotic technology at the trade ministry's New
Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.
The agency has recruited Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Panasonic
Corp to make a rival to the da Vinci that could perform more
intricate tasks, such as removing pancreatic tumors, while a surgeon
manipulates its controls.
At stake is a fast-growing industry - the market for industrial
robotic systems is worth $29 billion a year worldwide according to
the International Federation of Robotics.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in June, when he unveiled a
framework for sweeping regulatory reforms, that he expected Japan's
robot market alone to triple to 2.4 trillion yen ($21 billion) by
Healthcare robotics is tiny now but has vast potential - such
services are expected to overtake industrial uses within 10 years in
the Japanese robot market.
The new surgical robot, part of a 5 billion yen medical robotics
program that aims to have products in clinical trials by 2019,
should have an easier time than Goto faced with regulators.
"If you asked the authorities, they wouldn't say they kept medical
devices from reaching the market, but as far as academics and
companies are concerned they stopped Japanese research cold," said
Goto, a professor at Shinshu University in central Japan.
Abe, who has called a snap election for next month to seek a renewed
mandate for his "Abenomics" economic policies, has promised
deregulation and structural reform to foster industrial growth as a
two-year stimulus drive falters.
A key trigger to action was Google Inc's surprise acquisition a year
ago of Schaft, a venture led by two former Tokyo University
professors who developed a humanoid robot that handily won a rescue
competition run by a research unit of the U.S. Department of
Defense. The robot had to drive a utility vehicle and climb a ladder
to prevail against more than a dozen rivals.
"Everyone associates bipedal robots with Japan so it was a shock
that even that was being pulled away," said Waseda University
Professor Masakatsu Fujie.
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The U.S. robotics industry has been powered in large part by the
military, which provides funding and field testing for drones and
disaster-relief robots, while Silicon Valley has nurtured
innovations in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems such
as Google's self-driving car.
"To be honest, the U.S. is a
concern," said Osamu Sudo, who helped to craft Japan's robotics
strategy as director of the industrial machinery division at the
trade ministry, where he served until early July.
Other countries are also pushing robotics to the forefront of
industrial policy: China, where sales grew 32-fold over the last
decade to eclipse Japan as the biggest robot market in 2013, aims to
make one-third of its own robots by 2015.
South Korea has a five-year plan to spend $500 million a year on its
robotics industry, while the European Union has earmarked 100
million euros ($125 million) a year to its Horizon 2020 program that
aims to pull in a further 2 billion euros annually in private
Japan is trying to keep up: ministries have requested 16 billion yen
($138 million) for direct investment in robotics in the next fiscal
But success will depend largely on reforming a fragmented regulatory
process that can set insurmountable hurdles by mandating absolute
safety, said Atsuo Takanishi, a professor at Waseda University
specializing in robotics.
The trade ministry has convinced health ministry officials to relax
certification procedures for medical devices and introduce
affordable robots to nursing homes on a trial basis.
It also pushed for an international safety standard for care robots
that Panasonic Corp cleared in February with a robotic nursing bed
that folds up into a wheelchair, eliminating the need for
care-givers to lift their patients.
With the freeing of regulations, Kiyoshi Sawaki, who recently
replaced Sudo as head of the trade ministry's industrial machinery
division, is confident that the government has created sufficient
opportunities to succeed in robotics.
"The approval process is being simplified," he said. "So companies
can't use the same excuses that they did before."
(Additional reporting by Teppei Kasai; Editing by Edmund Klamann and
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