In the third installment of the special feature “Researchers who have crossed the sea,” we introduce Ho An Van, an associate professor in the Human Informatics Research Area at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (JAIST). Born and raised in Vietnam, he was fascinated by Japanese craftsmanship and moved to Japan to devote himself to the research and development of soft robots. Ho’s goal is to create a society where humans and robots work together using soft robots that do not hurt people or things.
I want to reproduce Doraemon’s tools
Robots have been rapidly developed in recent years, supporting society in various fields such as manufacturing and logistics. With the advent of the era of declining population, it is expected that the field of activity will be further expanded in the future, but on the other hand, there are new challenges. Existing robots are made of hard materials such as metal, so there is a risk of injury or damage to the robot when it comes into contact with people or various equipment.
Robots that use soft materials such as silicon are attracting attention. Ho has developed a variety of soft robots inspired by phenomena in the natural world, and is working on research with the aim of putting them to practical use.
Ho’s hometown is Halong City, east of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. He grew up just a few hundred meters from Halong Bay, a World Natural Heritage site. As one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan, many foreign tourists have been visiting the city for a long time. Because of this environment, Mr. Heo recalls, “I felt the importance of foreign languages from a young age.”
It was Japanese comics that sparked Ho’s interest in science. “When I was in the third grade of elementary school, the Vietnamese version of Doraemon came out. It was my first time reading a manga, but it was so interesting that I became interested in science and technology. Even now, my dream is Doraemon. It is to reproduce the tools of
Researching robotics in Kyoto and interacting with nearby university students
After that, I studied hard and entered the Hanoi University of Technology. He is one of the leading names in Vietnam, and he was able to interact with researchers from Japan and other countries around the world. And since his supervisor was from the Department of Robotics, College of Science and Engineering, Ritsumeikan University, Mr. Ho began to think about going to graduate school at Ritsumeikan University, the same as his former teacher.
After graduating from an undergraduate school, Mr. Heo came to Japan when he was 23 years old. In addition to his robotics research, he was also interested in Japanese culture, so he actively participated in events for international students. He interacted with nearby university students such as Kyoto University and Ryukoku University, and gained experience in communicating in Japanese.
It was around this time that I felt the potential of soft materials. When she thought about how to make robot fingertips similar to those of humans, she thought that flexibility would be important. However, at that time, the idea of making robots from soft materials had not yet spread, and it did not materialize.
After completing his doctoral course, he worked as a postdoc for one year before joining Mitsubishi Electric. At his workplace, Mr. Heo was engaged in research on motor control, and what he learned during the training, such as how to deal with telephone calls and emails in Japanese society, was of great help in building his career. It is said that there is “I was only in the company for two years, but I was very grateful to have been able to gain social experience here,” recalls Ho.
Focus on animal adaptability
During his two years at the company, the potential of soft robots gradually came to be recognized. After working as an assistant professor at Ryukoku University, he became an associate professor at JAIST in 2017. “I thought it was a wonderful environment, with abundant materials and many facilities that I had never seen before,” says Mr. Ho, who will make use of this environment to accelerate development.
The starting point for Mr. Heo’s idea is to think, “What if there was flexibility?” At the moment, we have to use hard materials for batteries and circuits, so it’s impossible to make everything soft. However, if we could make it even a little softer, we might be able to create new functions.
He turned to animals living in nature to get a hint. Animals adapt to changes in their environment without thinking. However, it is not easy to achieve the same thing with a robot. Robots made of hard materials require a tremendous amount of computation to control positions, forces, etc.
However, if the material is soft, the amount of computation required is significantly reduced. For example, even if there are obstacles on the path, there is no need to avoid them as long as the vehicle only needs to deform slightly to accommodate them. It is conceivable that softening the material would reduce its durability, but this can be compensated for by making it modular and making it possible to replace parts.
“I see it as my mission to make soft robots widely accepted,” says Ho. To that end, he said, “First, we need to appeal to the potential of soft robots and get them interested in them. Then, I would like to see more and more inquiries asking, ‘Can you solve our problems with soft robots?’ I think we can develop various things from there.”
Safety and reliability are paramount
Some robots are actually being developed jointly with external parties. The impetus for this was a robot that reproduced the propulsive force of an eel underwater. A project to apply this technology to arthroscopy is being conducted jointly with Nagoya University Hospital. The robot under development has a diameter of 4 millimeters. The skin must be incised to enter the joint, so it must be sized to allow this.
Safety and reliability are of utmost importance when using robots in such fields as medical care and nursing care. In order to ensure that, it would be better to use a soft material that does not hurt people even if they come into contact with it.
Attempts are also underway to equip robots with functions similar to those of human skin. The skin is a tactile sense for grasping the surrounding environment, and at the same time, it also plays a role in conveying softness and warmth to the person who touches it. If we can give them that function, the possibilities of robots will undoubtedly expand greatly. “Even for people who have difficulty in verbal communication, I think it will be useful in various situations, such as responding to user requests by sensing contact,” says Ho.
In addition, the use of soft materials for the propellers used in drones leads to improved safety and reliability. This propeller was inspired by the wings of a dragonfly, and even if it hits an obstacle, it deforms to absorb the impact, quickly returns to its original position and continues to move. In addition, the installed sensor detects information about obstacles and can be used for control.
Utilizing the goodness of Japanese manufacturing to meet the needs of the world
There are about 20 graduate students in Ho’s lab, and they come from many different countries and speak different languages. Based on their own ideas, each person aims to develop robots that are useful to society. The 3D printers that mold various parts are said to be in operation almost all the time, as a variety of ideas can be generated through friendly rivalry.
“Since this is a graduate school and there is no undergraduate course, everyone has graduated from another university. For example, a graduate student whose parents’ house grows fruit trees is trying to launch a robot that can collect and analyze data as well as sorting and harvesting fruits. It goes without saying that a soft material is preferable in order not to damage the fruit, which is an important commodity.
Mr. Ho said that he had felt the goodness of Japanese products since he was in Vietnam. This originates from Japanese manufacturing, where quality is improved through continuous improvement. Mr. He believes that it is necessary to develop products that meet the diverse needs of not only Japan but also the world by taking advantage of the goodness of Japanese craftsmanship. In addition, “Even the most advanced technology today will be obsolete in five to ten years. For that reason, it is important to gain experience in various places and come into contact with various ways of thinking.
Therefore, he says that he wants graduate students in his laboratory to go abroad for research, even for a short period of time. “If you want to do research overseas, I think you should study the local language. You can do research in English, but if you want to be active or understand the culture, I recommend studying. If you can learn a language, your world will open up,” he advises.
With a flexible mindset, Mr. Ho aims to develop flexible robots. Ahead of the line of sight is a future in which humans and robots play an active role together by taking advantage of their respective strengths.
Associate Professor, Human Informatics Research Area, Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
He came to Japan in 2007 after graduating from Hanoi University of Technology. He holds a doctorate in engineering from Ritsumeikan University.
After working as a researcher of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, a researcher of Mitsubishi Electric Advanced Research Institute, and an assistant professor of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Ryukoku University, he assumed his current position in 2017