Robot wars on truancy and intruders

18th August 2006 at 01:00
A bright yellow robot could soon help teachers in Britain to combat truancy and report intruders on school property.

Wakamaru, which stands more than a metre tall and rolls around on wheels, is already being employed by a school in Tokyo.

The plastic and metal robot greets visitors to Setagaya elementary by holding out its right arm. It invites pupils to swipe their identity cards over a scanner on its palm, electronically registering them, after which it greets them and tells them their teacher has been informed of their arrival.

If Wakamaru does not recognise a visitor because they do not have a card or are not registered on its face-recognition system, it takes their photo, asks them to wait, and then sends a message wirelessly to a teacher's computer or mobile phone.

The robot was originally developed by Mitsubishi to act as a house-sitter and to monitor the sick and elderly. A limited number of the machines, which are capable of recharging themselves and are constantly connected to the internet, have sold for around pound;8,000 each. Mori Takeshi, deputy managing director of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Europe, said it was unclear when Wakamaru would be available to British schools.

"He can't speak English yet," he said. "But there is now a Wakamaru in London who is learning the language, so there is probably a plan to market it in the UK later."

Other robots being used as an educational aid in Japanese schools include the Robovie, a bug-eyed android which can take part in a range of basic games including scissor, paper, stone.

Timothy Hornyak, an author of books on Japanese robots, believes that devices like Wakamaru are likely to increase in popularity in schools.

He told Dazed Confused magazine: "I expect the use of robot sentinels will become widespread once safety issues are addressed. There are very few cultural issues in Japan regarding adopting robots as everyday partners, tools and friends. It's clear to see on the faces of the children."

Wakamaru's drawbacks include the fact that he may not prove the most threatening security guard as he will have some difficulty pursuing miscreants: like the early Daleks on Doctor Who, he is unable to climb stairs.

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