Japan’s latest Gundam-style giant robot takes on railway maintenance duties


WTF?! Japan has a history of creating real-life, Gundam-style giant robots, but they tend to be for entertainment purposes rather than practical applications. However, the country has just started using a 40-foot humanoid robot for maintenance operations on railway lines.

Around two years ago, the West Japan Railway Company (JR West) created a prototype machine that’s essentially a crane with a robot torso attached to the end of its arm.

The robot has a small, WALL-E-like head, a couple of large camera eyes, and two massive articulated arms with clamps on the ends. It’s able to reach 40 feet into the air, carry up to 88 pounds, and hold a brush or use a chainsaw.

The robot is controlled by an operator with a VR headset and motion controllers that offer force feedback.

While the machine looks like it could have competed in the old Japan Giant Robot Fighting League, the company said that it’s designed for trimming tree branches along rails and painting metal frames that hold cables above trains.

That might sound underwhelming, but the standardized power that the overhead wires transmit in Japan is 25 kilovolts (kV) at 60Hz. While a shock’s intensity lies in the amount of current forced through a body, rather than the voltage, you still wouldn’t want to touch 25,000 volts.

In addition to helping humans avoid being electrocuted, the robot should reduce the number of incidents in which workers fall from high places.

It appears that the tests involving the prototype two years ago were successful, as the planned wider rollout in 2024 commenced this month.

West Japan Railway Company president Kazuaki Hasegawa told reporters that he hopes to use machines for all kinds of maintenance operations across the company’s infrastructure, and the robot should provide a case study for how to deal with the labor shortage.

There’s a major shortage of workers in Japan, where 29% of its population is over 65. That’s the second highest in the world behind the Principality of Monaco, which is home to just over 38,000 people.


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