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VR-Guided Humanoid Robots May Be Used for Building Railways in Japan

In April, JR West, a major railroad transportation company operating out of Japan, revealed plans to use giant robots guided by a human operator in VR (virtual reality) in the construction of future railroad lines. The multifunctional railway heavy equipment is comprised of a railroad construction vehicle merged with a humanoid heavy robot. Videos of the robot in action show it lifting and positioning sizeable components, as well as cleaning overhead rail structures with a special multi-angle brush. It grips all these tools in what look like relatively simple clamp-like "hands," showing a reasonable degree of dexterity, albeit operating at a fairly slow speed.

The mechanical contraption was developed in collaboration with Nippon Signal, a railway signal technology company, and as a way to increase productivity while improving workplace safety. According to JR West, VR-enabled robots will reduce on-site accidents, such as electric shock and crashes, by removing the need for direct human intervention.

The system is very straightforward. Operators sit in the driving cab and use an HP VR headset to view the world from the robot’s perspective. A large control panel is used to operate two mechanical arms equipped with a pair of clamps, allowing users to interact with various machinery. Operators will be able to feel the weight of objects as they work, offering a more intuitive and natural experience.

JR West is currently in the process of testing its heavy equipment robot before making the technology available for use in the Spring of 2024. While designed for railroad construction, it is easy to adjust the system to serve other practical use-cases throughout a variety of industries. The VR robot could theoretically be used for operating on powerlines, demolition, roofing and high-rise work, and various other high-risk scenarios.