Photo/IllutrationAvatar robots developed by ANA Holdings Inc. are equipped with cameras so that they can be remotely controlled with tablet computers and other devices. (Yoshikatsu Nakajima)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Leading air carrier ANA Holdings Inc. is pursuing robotic technology, aiming for the day when people can quickly travel anywhere in the world through an avatar.

ANA is seeking to develop by next spring its new system under which self-developed robots are deployed all over the world. These robots can be remotely controlled through tablet computers and other electronics, allowing operators to feel as if they are actually there.

The project is expected to allow those who cannot take a plane to instantly travel anywhere as avatars, like with the "Anywhere Door" teleportation machine from the famed “Doraemon” anime series.

Some may wonder why ANA is proceeding with a new business that could exert negative effects on its earnings if it keeps customers from flying.

CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY

This year, ANA presented its achievements for the first time at the Ceatec state-of-the-art technology trade fair held at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba.

“Realizing a world where all human beings will be able to move and be connected with and help each other beyond physical, bodily and spatial limitations is as important as flying aircraft,” said Shinya Katanozaka, president of ANA Holdings, giving the company’s main speech at the trade fair on Oct. 15.

At ANA’s booth, many machines that are 1 to 1.5 meters tall and have liquid crystal screens as their “faces” moved around. The robot, which has the company logo on its body and is named Newme, was developed by ANA to spread the use of robotic devices.

In a demonstration, the monitor showed the face of a female cabin attendant who operated the robot from a distance by pushing buttons on a tablet device. As footage shot by the robot’s camera is displayed on the woman’s mobile device, she can manipulate the machine as if she is there in person.

The technology, for example, will allow users to shop at a department store while relaxing in their living rooms at home, if robotic units stationed there are connected to electronics on hand.

Links with robots at an aquarium will show swimming fish. One can even catch fish by reeling in the line with a robot installed at a fishing pond, because the user can feel the strong pull on the fishing rod when a fish bites.

According to ANA representatives, trips to outer space or into deep oceans are also possible if robots are set up on the moon or the seafloor.

“Many people consider the technology as one that can only be found in fictional stories, but it is becoming increasingly real,” Katanozaka said.

Under the current plan, ANA will start a service using the robotic technology in April next year and introduce at least 1,000 robots by summer 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held.

ANA plans to work with Tokyo, Okinawa Prefecture and other local governments as well as real estate firm Mitsui Fudosan Co. and department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd. to test the system as a step to making a society with avatars a reality.

KNOW-HOW ACCUMULATED VIA COMPETITION

A mystery exists: how ANA--being not a manufacturing company and having no robotic technology by its own--could take the avatar system closer to commercial applications.

Behind the success is the X Prize competition organized by the X Prize Foundation, which was established in 1995 in the United States. The competition is aimed at helping promote the development of technologies that could bring about benefits for mankind with an eye toward solving global challenges.

Especially famous among past competitions are the Google-sponsored moon probe landing race and a contest funded by wealthy individuals to realize a manned space flight in the private sector.

Aiming to increase its name recognition outside Japan, ANA strengthened ties with the X Prize Foundation. As a result, it was invited by the foundation to a six-month contest to decide the theme for the next X Prize competition, according to ANA officials.

ANA sent Akira Fukabori, who studied aerospace engineering and works at the company’s Avatar Division and “really loves” the foundation, and Kevin Kajitani to the session.

While the two officials from ANA suggested a teleportation program to transport people instantly, the proposal was refined during the contest so the avatar project was finally developed to reproduce a human's sense, skills and consciousness in remote areas.

As the avatar program won the contest in October 2016, a competition financed by ANA Holdings started in March 2018. Currently, 820 teams from 81 countries are developing technologies to be used for the avatar system for the prize money of $10 million (1.08 billion yen).

The qualifying and final rounds will be held in 2021 and 2022, respectively, to decide which team is awarded the prize.

After starting the competition, ANA became able to quickly collect information on robotics, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, sensors, communications, haptic technology, artificial intelligence and the other latest inventions.

ANA has been developing its new robot-based system, creating a database of technologies accumulated through the X Prize.

“We want to pitch new technology to the market when the competition ends,” said Kajitani.

VENTURE SPIRIT AT ANA

Another factor that enabled ANA to proceed with the avatar program is its enterprising spirit.

In 1952, ANA started its business with only two helicopters. ANA was allowed to fly aircraft to connect small and large local airports across Japan during the 1970s under the 45/47 government-led aviation industry protection system.

After the system was abolished in the 1980s, ANA started offering regular international flights in 1986. It has since taken on many challenges, such as serving as the launch customer for the Boeing 787 and Mitsubishi SpaceJet, Japan's first domestically produced small passenger jet, as well as startup budget carrier Peach Aviation Ltd.

The avatar program is a new step for ANA because it will provide travel experience even for those who cannot fly on aircraft.

According to ANA Holdings, only 6 percent of the 7.7 billion people all over the world annually ride airplanes. The latest project was begun in the hope of allowing the 94 percent of people who do not use airlines to travel like they were aboard an aircraft.

As the avatar travel technology could lead to hurting the airways market--the core business of ANA--and be a disruptive innovation, doubts have been raised by those in and outside ANA over the airline’s plan to promote the technology.

But Katanozaka noted the mission of ANA is not simply flying aircraft.

“Since we started our business with just two helicopters 67 years ago, we have introduced propeller and jet planes to pursue the dream of linking people all over the world,” said Katanozaka. “We will realize an avatar-driven world in the front row.”