Picture of autonomous robot to gather sporting equipment on the field.

Toyota Robots Take the Field

Release Date: May 25, 2024

Category: Blog | Technology

When we watched the throwing events in Tokyo, we were enamored with the robots who took the field. The field service robots (FSR) retrieved hammers, javelins, shot puts, and discus at both the Olympics and Paralympics. A slightly different version collected balls on the rugby pitch. Provided by Toyota, the tiny cars were designed to look like the autonomous buses shuttling athletes around the host city. They became a favorite of fans catching a glimpse on television as they sped across the grass.

While similar devices were used in 2012 and 2016, the Tokyo version was unique. Not only did the tiny trucks drive themselves, they were able to avoid obstacles and determine the best route to their destinations. Toyota, Olympic and Paralympic sponsor since 2015, created the cars to save time and reduce workload on support staff. An added benefit for the Covid Olympics and Paralympics – the robots allowed fewer staff and officials to be in contact with athletes and each other, reducing the risk of exposure.

Toyota became a TOP sponsor in March 2015. Rather than only providing cars or transportation, the agreement specifically named Toyota as a sponsor in “mobility.” It was the first ever Olympic sponsor in that category. At the same time, Toyota expanded the agreement to include the Paralympics. While the carmaker has provided vehicles for the Games, Toyota has used the sponsorship to highlight its growth in mobility devices and robotics. In Tokyo, Toyota touted its autonomous buses and featured its basketball throwing robot at center court in a halftime show. The agreement also led to our favorite commercial from Tokyo, “First Date,” which also showcased Toyota mobility technology. (As a side note, Toyota has re-launched its “Start Your Impossible” campaign for Paris 2024. No word yet if Mike and Maya will return.)

Soon after signing its agreement with the IOC, Toyota created an Olympic and Paralympic Division specifically to develop technology to be used at the Games. The division head, Futoshi Ito, attended the 2016 Rio Olympics and saw a radio controlled vehicle helping at the throwing events. Ito envisioned a robot version. In April 2018, he assembled a staff from other departments of Toyota, pulling robot technology from already existing devices in production at the company. The team soon discovered that technology worked well in the lab, but failed out on the field. Throwing events have changing conditions, including constant motion and shifting objects. Existing robots were unable to adapt with markers and fixed route. Department manager Satsuki Yamane suggested using artificial intelligence (AI) to overcome the issues. Tools like cameras with object recognition and location recognition improved effectiveness and safety for robots on large fields. Despite the challenges, the team had a prototype ready for testing in only a year. The model was a little slow and clunky but it handled the unpredictable nature of the athletic field. Eleven demonstration tests and endless tweaks later, the FSR was ready for its debut on the world stage.

The Toyota team of engineers had little experience in robotics and no throwing athletes on its roster. Takeshi Kuwabara, FSR project leader, spearheaded modifications to the robot specifically for para-athletes. He discovered the sound of the vehicle was frightening to visually impaired athletes and seated athletes could not comfortably reach down to retrieve their equipment. The team worked to accommodate these and other accessibility issues, keeping an “athletes-first” approach in the development process. You may not have noticed another detail added for the mini-cars at the Paralympics: each vehicle was marked with a large, white “15” to connect with the IPC’s newly launched “We the 15” project.

What does have Toyota have planned for Paris 2024? The robots will be back in the State de France for athletics and rugby. The team has continued to make improvements to the FSR, aiming to reduce retrieval time even further.  Toyota has not released the design or look of the Paris FSRs. Can we hope for Peugeot or Citroën?

 

Photo courtesy of Toyota.