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Humanoid robots are helping travelers at a Tokyo airport

Visitors to Tokyo’s Haneda international airport this month may find themselves receiving assistance from EMIEW, a 90-cm-tall humanoid robot developed by Hitachi.

Showing off its capabilities at a carefully planned demonstration recently, EMIEW (pronounced like the flightless bird with a similar-looking name) guided a traveler to a tourist office where another EMIEW offered a downloadable digital map showing the location of the airport’s souvenir stores.

The wheel-based robot switched effortlessly between English and Japanese (just like the “tourist” in the demonstration, actually), responding accurately and naturally to each inquiry. The whole process did, however, seem a little on the slow side, though as this is a trial run, response times may be speeded up before the bots roll out on a more permanent basis toward the end of the year.

Hitachi has been developing EMIEW since 2005, with the Haneda version the third in the series. The latest model, which has a top speed of 3.7 mph (6 kmh), features what Hitachi calls a “remote brain” where built-in sensors work with external monitoring technology (think overhead cameras) to give the robot all the information it needs for an appropriate response. The cloud-based system also enables multiple EMIEWs to cooperate with each other in a specific space such as an airport, not necessarily a good thing for those who fear the robot apocalypse but potentially useful if you’re looking for a faraway bathroom.

And should a late passenger sprinting to a gate happen to accidentally knock EMIEW over, the bot can cleverly get back on its feet without any human assistance, provided of course its electronics weren’t mangled in the fall.

Airports around the world are increasingly working to bring passenger-facing robotic technology to terminal buildings. Geneva airport in Switzerland has been recently testing a friendly luggage-carrying robot called Leo, while “Spencer” has been helping visitors at the Netherlands’ Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Indianapolis airport, meanwhile, once tried out a telepresence robot, a somewhat less sophisticated piece of kit comprising a Segway-like device, a tablet, and a T-shirt to make it look a little more human.

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Hitachi’s android is similar in some ways to others built by big-name Japanese firms, including Honda and its Asimo robot and, more recently, SoftBank, which in 2014 introduced Pepper, a humanoid robot the company says can understand and respond to human emotions.