Giant robot sprucing up railways in Japan

A Japanese railway company is deploying a giant robot to carry out maintenance works in the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area.

If Optimus Prime and Wall-E had a baby, this is probably what it would look like. And starting this month, it is joining railway maintenance teams in Japan’s second-largest metropolitan area.

The towering robot with googly eyes was unveiled by West Japan Railway Company (JR West) and developed in partnership with robotics company Jinki Ittai and transportation technology firm Nippon Signal.

According to JR West, the robot will initially be tasked with trimming tree branches along rails and painting emplacements that hold cables above tracks. The project will address “a labor shortage in infrastructure maintenance work,” the company said.

It also expects to improve labor and safety by using the robot to perform tasks that could potentially endanger human employees. It can work at heights of up to 12 meters and lift objects weighing up to 40 kilograms.

Depending on the kind of work the robot is expected to perform, its two arms can be replaced by other appendages, such as chainsaws and brushes.

The machine is mounted on a truck that can drive on rails and is remotely operated from inside the vehicle by a worker who can see through the robot’s eyes via cameras.

JR West said it expected to reduce the manpower required for railroad maintenance work by around 30% and will consider expanding its fleet of infrastructure robots and pitching technology to other companies if it proves effective.

The robot resembles a mecha-style robotic suit developed by Tokyo-based mechanics company Tsubame Industries, which went on sale last year. While it is also operated remotely by a human, a control cockpit is nestled within the robot’s chest.

“Mecha” is a Japanese term and science fiction genre describing giant robots or machines that are often piloted by humans.