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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Europe needs bigger robots push
Image of a cycling robot at this week's Japanese tech fest, Ceatec
Robots are making moves outside of industry
European Union (EU) member states are losing out to the Japanese when it comes to developing useful robots that are commercially available.

The European Commission (EC) urged businesses to turn their robotics research into viable products much more quickly than they do now.

The EU spends about 50 million euros (34.4 million) a year on research projects which produce prototypes.

But these tend not to make it to market as products until 10 to 15 years later.

Ulf Dahlsten, the EU's emerging technologies director in Brussels, said this meant EU businesses lagged behind Japan in terms of pushing robots into new market areas.

"The truth is that in robotic research, so far, it has been mainly academic research, and industry has not been very present," he said.

He added that the EU was losing out to Japan because it had a higher level of development in its research and innovation.

Research strength

Japan has long had a lead in the robotics industry, but the EU's 25 member states have a 35% share in the global manufacturing of robots.

Image of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' home help robot, Wakamaru
Wakamaru goes on sale in September as a "home helper"
In order for the EU to get more robots onto the market, it needed an "innovation procurement".

Mr Dahlsten likened the robotics industry within the EU at its current stage to the telecoms industry.

The telecoms industry was given a boost when governments and private companies commissioned products which were not fully developed.

He argued this kind of push would drive the robotics industry forwards, just as it drove energy, security and defence businesses.

On Friday, the EC said it would help companies such as EADS, BAE Systems and Philips, coordinate robotics research and push the industry.

The European Technology Platform in Robotics (Europ) aims to bring together all the main industrial and academic robotics stakeholders and public authorities in robotics.

Japanese expertise

Robots are increasingly being used for more hazardous or specialist jobs, such as scientific and medical research, defence and surveillance, as well as mine-clearing.

Much of the EU's robotics research focuses on innovations such as "swarm bots" which look to the natural world for inspiration.

Swarming bots act like ants, working in teams, to carry out tasks that individuals could not do.

Researchers around the world are developing robots for different uses, and many are making them a lot smarter and autonomous by developing AI systems (Artificial Intelligence).

Hi-tech manufacturer, Honeywell, is testing micro air vehicles, essentially flying robots equipped with two cameras that send live video feeds to soldiers on the ground, for example.

Nasa is also developing miniature robots which join up to form "autonomous nanotechnology swarms" (Ants) that change shape to flow over rocky terrain or to create useful structures like communications antennae and solar sails.

But robots are getting ready to step out of the industrial and research world to be viable human companions and helpers.

The worldwide market for both industrial and service robots is forecast to be worth more than $66 billion (37.4 billion) by 2025.

Many of the humanoid robot prototypes are built by car manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota to showcase expertise in robotics, an important part of automobile manufacturing.

It is these humanoid type robots that can open up new domestic markets for the robotics industry.

In August, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced a humanoid home help robot, called Wakamaru, would go on sale in September.

It recognises up to 10 faces and understands 10,000 words. The one-metre tall humanoid robot is being marketed as a mechanical house-sitter and secretary.

Last year, a United Nations annual World Robotics report said that 4.1 million robots would be doing jobs in homes by the end of 2007.

It also projected that by then, there would be almost 2.5 million entertainment and "leisure" robots in homes, compared to about 137,000 currently.

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