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Gunma Pref. city eyes robots to help short-staffed day care facilities

Two units of the nursery robot "VIVO" are seen with, from right, Ota Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu, model designer Tatsuya Kataoka and Global Bridge Holdings Co. CEO Joe Sadamatsu, at Ota City Hall in Gunma Prefecture, on Sept. 5, 2017. (Mainichi)

OTA, Gunma -- To battle a day care worker shortage and lighten the burden on those working in the field, this city is taking a unique approach -- leading the development of a system to watch over children using "nursery robots."

The robots are being developed by Gunma University in collaboration with a private tech company. According to the Ota Municipal Government and other project participants, the nursery robot "VIVO" would be able to take attendance, measure the temperatures of children and also check on their vital signs during nap times. Field experiments in the city's day care centers are scheduled to begin in October, with the group aiming to introduce the finished product in April 2018. It is envisaged the system would initially be priced at 4 to 5 million yen, with demand for 10,000 units required in the future to make it commercially viable.

At a height of some 70 centimeters, the robots are designed to look like teddy bears to garner the affection of the children. The robots respond to key chains held by the children's parents when approached to identify individual pupils, enabling them to record when they enter and leave facilities.

The robots are equipped with thermography instruments in their frames that can measure and record children's body temperatures.

In addition, for children up to 2 years of age, a system to measure their heartbeats using a sensor that can be stuck under their blanket during nap time will be introduced. The device would be able to detect if the child suddenly got up from bed, was breathing irregularly or sleeping face-down, along with other movements, and report them to human nursery workers via a tablet setup.

According to the Cabinet Office and other sources, out of the 13 cases of infant death that occurred in day care and similar child care facilities last year, 10 occurred while the child was sleeping, and all of those who died were a 1 year old and under. There have been 28 cases over the last five years of infants dying from sleeping on their stomachs at day care facilities, and eliminating the risk of children dying from asphyxiation while sleeping has been an important issue for day care operators.

"We would like to see how the system can substitute day care works in areas that such workers can't keep an eye on," said Joe Sadamastu, CEO of Global Bridge Holdings Co. in Tokyo's Sumida Ward that took part in the development of the robots.

The project was led by the Ota Municipal Government, with the design for the robot coming from by Ota-native and internationally acclaimed hubcap designer Tatsuya Kataoka. Mayor Masayoshi Shimizu commented, "Looking toward solving personnel shortages in day care facilities, I hope the robots can be sold as an improvement that is 'Made in Ota.'"

"In the end, the robots can only take a supportive role in care, and cannot be entrusted completely with looking after children," said professor of child care theory Tatsuzen Sato of Ikuei Junior College in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture. "However, it is important to employ robots and information technology to reduce the burden on nursery workers."

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