MR. ROBOTO Remote-controlled cyborg can drive mini excavators.

In cooperation with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the research and development team comprises a partnership between Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Tokyu Construction Co. and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). In March, they wrapped a five-year, $38.2-million laboratory study resulting in seven robots, one of which was tested in December on a mini excavator. Researchers are planning a second phase to conduct trials for future equipment-driving robots in the field.

"There have been many attempts to robotize industrial vehicles," says Kazuhito Yokoi, senior research analyst at AIST. "We believe that teledriving a vehicle, such as a backhoe, in dirty or dangerous environments will be one of the most promising application areas for humanoid robots in the future."

The excavator robot, dubbed HRP-1S, stands 5 ft, 3 in. tall and weighs 258 lb. According to Yokoi, each joint is activated by a brushless DC servo motor equipped with a harmonic-drive reduction gear. Brushless DC servo amplifiers, a Ni-Zn battery and a wireless Ethernet modem also are embedded in the body of the robot.

It is not fully automated, though. In the lab, a technician operates HRP-1S from a control station that resembles a beefed-up video game. Two cameras mounted in the robot's head guide the technician, who also receives force-sensitive feedback as the robot, sitting in the excavator cab, grasps the joystick controls.

The robot still needs tweaking, says Takao Ueno, Tokyu Construction project engineer. But his company hopes to begin testing units soon on jobsites.

(Photo courtesy of National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology)

consortium of researchers in Japan believes firms performing unusually dangerous work could benefit from robots that operate heavy equipment. It may sound like a science fiction story, but the team's engineers say they already have demonstrated a prototype with potential for use on hazardous construction and cleanup sites.