Secrets of a smart city

Secrets of a smart city
Hydrogen being pumped into a fuel-cell car at the Kitakyushu Hydrogen Station.

As Singapore pushes ahead with aspirations of having intelligent systems monitor everything from traffic to air quality, Janice Tai visits the futuristic city of Kitakyushu and the Japan Robot Week 2014 exhibition in Tokyo to see how the Japanese do it.

THE ELDERLY: A bathroom beside the bed

With a population that is the world's oldest, Japan is tapping its expertise in robots to provide nursing and social care.

At the Japan Robot Week 2014 exhibition in Tokyo two weeks ago, more than 140 firms showed off their latest creations, many of which were designed to facilitate care for the elderly or infirm.

"The ageing society is a big issue for this country as in the future there may be too few facilities and staff to care for those who need it," said a spokesman for the exhibition organiser.

Toto, Japan's largest toilet-maker, showcased a toilet that can be installed beside a bed at home or in a nursing home.

This means the elderly need not walk to the bathroom. Diapers are not needed and caregivers need not be woken up at night to assist the seniors to use the toilet.

The new innovation works like a conventional flush toilet, except that it has a special pump unit to crush waste and toilet paper so that smaller hoses can be used for drainage. The small diameter of the hoses allows for the toilet to be installed by the bed.

The toilet, which picked up the Excellent Robot Award at the exhibition, costs US$5,000 (S$6,400). Some 500 sets have already been sold since its launch last month.

In Singapore, where the population is also fast greying, efforts have also been made to help the seniors use toilets more safely.

About 30,000 households have benefited from a Housing Board programme to install elder-friendly fittings such as grab bars and ramps in bathrooms, as of July, said an HDB spokesman.

Another robot at the exhibition is Nao, a two-legged humanoid robot which can engage in human conversation.

Researchers from the Nanyang Technological University bought Nao a few years ago and is working with psychologists from the Institute of Mental Health to study whether a robot can help children with autism learn to be more social.

TRANSPORT: Running on hydrogen

The world's first hydrogen fuel- cell car will go on sale later this year for seven million yen (S$80,000).

Operators of the Kitakyushu Hydrogen Station, which works closely with Toyota, the world's largest carmaker, told The Straits Times that production of the vehicle is ahead of schedule. It will be introduced by the end of this year, they said.

Even as Singapore is developing a road map to assess how electric vehicles can be adopted in future, Japan is exploring the next frontier - the fuel-cell option.

Unlike electric vehicles that run on energy stored in batteries, fuel-cell cars make the electricity needed for power on board by passing hydrogen gas through a stack of membranes and plates.

The result is a "zero-emission" vehicle, as only water and heat are produced from the process.

Drivers can usually travel farther with fuel-cell vehicles than with rechargeable cars. The Toyota model is able to go 700km on a single charge, whereas rechargeable units run for about 160km.

But at seven million yen, it is about three times the price of a petrol or rechargeable car.

To increase the appeal of hydrogen fuel-cell cars, the Japanese government is offering two million yen in subsidies for each unit.

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