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NSK’s Active Caster – A Step Toward a Marvelous World of Robots

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Oct 09,2023


“You have to work to live” is often taken as a matter of fact, but what if that didn’t have to be the case. We are constantly improving, so it might not be too zealous to say that perhaps the ultimate goal of human technological and social progress is a world in which no one has to work. To make this a reality, an important first step is getting robots into more and more workplaces, working side-by-side with humans.

Further, many countries are facing aging populations and labor shortages, and robots are becoming increasingly important not only in manufacturing but also in a service industries. How can NSK’s technology contribute to solving these issues? In this article, we talk with NSK engineers working on “Active Caster” omnidirectional motorized wheels ready to be used in a diverse range of collaborative robot “cobot” and service robot applications!

What is NSK’s “Active Caster”?

The Active Caster is a motorized wheel unit designed to be used in close proximity to people. For service robots to be useful to people, they must be able to operate in the same spaces as people and move in a way that is considerate of others, so the unit is smart, quiet, and compact. Service robots equipped with Active Casters are currently being field tested and if successful these robots will soon play a role in our workplaces and daily lives.

One-Size Fits All: Ideal for Diverse Settings and Industries

HongoWorking on the Active Caster project has been very interesting, service robots that interact with people in their daily lives is a very new field and the possibilities are endless. Since joining this project, it really hit home that we are working on something that can directly benefit people’s lives and perhaps even raise our standard of living. It has also given me the opportunity to connect with new customers to solve problems in industries such as medical and logistics.

Actually, in our team, a number of us have family members that work in hospitals and care facilities, which can often be very physically demanding and there are a lot of tasks that must be carried out in a timely manner for the safe and effective recovery of patients. This is just one example, but we think it would be great if Active Casters can take shape as service robots in hospitals: automating medicine carts, transporting medical supplies, moving gurneys, and reducing the overall workload in these busy environments. We have already laid plans to update our Transport Assist Robot* with Active Casters to further improve and help hospital staff including our family and friends to provide the highest quality of care (and avoid back injuries!). It certainly feels good to work on a project that can directly help the people you know as well as society.

MatsuiJapan and many other countries have aging populations with shrinking labor forces and there are already industries troubled because they can’t hire enough employees. Robots using Active Casters could soon become necessary to automate repetitive and manual tasks and enable humans to focus on other work. Depending on the implementation such robots could even help businesses maintain or grow their competitive edge.

There are also applications in helping people who have limited mobility. Active casters could be used to develop a robot suitcase to make it easier for people to travel or a moving cart that doubles as a walker to help carry things around the house. The walker could be programmed to move out of the way and come back when convenient, giving the user more space when sitting down without having to worry about keeping it within hands’ reach. Thinking about all the different use cases has been quite stimulating.

Playing a Positive Role in a Changing Society

HongoWe are in process of brushing up the design through repeated operation tests. The lab has various surface environments, such as uneven floors, carpets, bumps, and slopes, basically a jungle gym for the test robot (laughs). At present, balancing performance and cost is a point of focus of development. Since Active Casters are equipped with two motors per wheel and control steering and traveling by the difference in their rotational speeds, we need to find smart ways to reduce per unit costs while still providing highly accurate control and performance.

We are utilizing technology and know-how that NSK has cultivated in many fields of research and development to reduce costs, such as through the development of electronic control units (ECU) for electric power steering, as well as optimizing for mass production to make it easy for customers to try out and adopt. In another couple years or so, you may happen to see robots with Active Casters around town.

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