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Redesigning the Spaces and Environments Surrounding Man-Made Systems

Institute for Mechanical Engineering Frontiers (Science and Technology Research Initiative)

Jin Kusaka, Professor of the Faculty of Science and Engineering
Director of Institute for Mechanical Engineering Frontiers

Commentary: Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering, University Research Initiative
Waseda University established Vision 150 to meet a variety of objectives for the 150th anniversary of its founding in 2032, with 13 core strategies in development. One of the core strategies that have been laid out is “promotion of original research and enhancement of the ability to deliver this internationally.” In order to drive this core strategy forward in the field of science and technology, seven research initiatives for responding to social challenges were newly established with the Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering (WISE) at its core. A research institute was established for each initiative in April 2018 with the aim to pursue first-class global research. In order to pursue interdisciplinary research and to strengthen international research in each field of focus, this group of research institutes, called the cluster institutes, will work cooperatively. There is also a plan to launch the “Waseda Earth Restoration School” (WERS) as a place where visions of future research can be formulated.

The seven cluster institutes established for each research initiative

Celebratory symposium for the establishment of the research initiatives, where research representatives and members of the seven initiatives gathered (December 22, 2017)

We asked Professor Jin Kusaka from the Faculty of Science and Engineering to talk about the aspirations and vision of the Institute for Mechanical Engineering Frontiers which was launched in April 2018 with a focus on the mechanical engineering frontiers research initiative, one of the seven research initiatives.

Curing Illnesses by Riding in a Car

“If I told you that any illness you might have could be cured by riding in a car, would you believe me? This is not a joke. We aim to create cars that make people healthier. For example, when the driver grips the steering wheel, sensors and cameras instantly detect biometric data. This data is then used to analyze the driver’s physical and mental health on that particular day, after which the driver is presented with medical advice. Music or fragrances that help stabilize the driver’s blood pressure and mood are activated. Safe and secure mobility scooters that feature automated driving technologies have also been developed. Our objective is to extend our vision into the future and implement such ideas, which may seem like pipe dreams at first, in the real world.” (Prof. Kusaka)

At the core of the Institute for Mechanical Engineering Frontiers are the faculty members of the School of Creative Science and Engineering, including Professor Kusaka. Professor Kusaka is a leading researcher in automotive catalysts and engine control. He also keeps himself busy as the director of Waseda University’s Research Organization for Next Generation Vehicles (nextGV). Automotive engineering is a field within Waseda’s science and engineering programs that boasts a long history and an excellent track record. In the mechanical engineering frontiers research initiative, however, the focus is not on automotive engineering in the conventional sense, but efforts to reconsider the concepts and the very existence of automobiles by utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). The aim is to work in cooperation with other researchers in the School of Creative Science and Engineering—whose core focuses are medical engineering, robotics, and architecture—to add new value to automobiles and implement next-generation systems that enrich people’s lives.

In the conventional sense, automobiles are considered tools that have made leaps and bounds in terms of making transportation and traveling more convenient and comfortable. In recent years, however, debate concerning issues such as the environmental toll and energy burden of automobiles, traffic congestion, traffic accidents, and elderly drivers has been sparked. To address these issues, various research and development have been conducted from various approaches, including those from human engineering, safety engineering, traffic engineering, environmental engineering, and urban engineering. At this institute, however, the aim is to take an approach that departs from conventional thinking in order to reconstruct products and services related to automobiles.

“For example, technologies that enable driving assistance and autonomous driving have recently attracted attention. We envision a future in which automobiles employ augmented reality and use sensing technologies to assist the five human senses. These vehicles can detect objects more effectively than people can see them, even in the dark. They can detect the quiet footsteps of an approaching person that human ears cannot hear. They can immediately sense a falling object at a construction site. They can choose cooler routes for a summer journey by sensing the temperatures of the roads. The spaces and environments surrounding automobiles are still relatively unexplored, so they are full of potential.” (Prof. Kusaka)

Automobiles are not the only subject of research. Applications in various other man-made systems (e.g., robots, home appliances, and networks for information and energy) are also being considered, as well as the spaces that surround such systems. In next-generation societies, things, people and ideas will have an entirely different global and local system of relationships. Given this, our aim is to create spaces where people from various backgrounds—including in terms of their age, gender, language, and place of origin—will be able to shape the future together.

Figure 1
Research concept example: monitoring in automobiles that utilize driver data

Integrating the Strengths of Mechanical, Architectural and Management Engineering

The stated mission of the School of Creative Science and Engineering is “to create new scientific technology for realizing a truly affluent society from the perspective of people, life, and the environment.” (Figure 2) The three schools of Waseda University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering focus on the following: the School of Fundamental Science and Engineering focuses on practical, basic approaches; the School of Advanced Science and Engineering focuses on exploring cutting-edge technologies; and the School of Creative Science and Engineering focuses on creating social and cultural environments. This approach to science and engineering is field-oriented, which is why a cross-sectional group of faculty members—including experts in mechanical, architectural, management and civil engineering—are involved.

With the aim of building a prosperous human society that is suitable for the 21st century from the perspective of people, life, and the environment, the institute is redefining the possibilities for automobiles, robots and other man-made systems created using cutting-edge technologies. Specifically, they are working on developing intelligent information-processing technologies for understanding people’s behaviors and skills as well as attractive designs that work in harmony with humans and then implementing them in tools, mechanical systems, and artificial spaces in order to assist and augment human actions.

Figure 2
Mission of the School of Creative Science and Engineering

“Until recently, the School of Creative Science and Engineering had been seen as a venue for gathering star players who individually made notable achievements, but we now aim to mobilize these star players in a collaborative effort to achieve things that only this group could deliver. Also, as this is a goal-oriented initiative, if there are any areas in which we lack the necessary resources, we will not hesitate to bring in more researchers from outside the school.” (Prof. Kusaka)

In line with the strategic vision for research and development in the first five years, they will pursue augmentation technologies that can assist the five human senses in realistic ways and start their core research in areas that are expected to become increasingly important, such as robotics design and intelligent information as well as well-being design and mobility. With the aim of meeting their goals quickly, the institute is centered on faculty members from the Department of Modern Mechanical Engineering, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering. The institute also works together with members of the Department of Applied Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering and the Department of Intermedia Art and Science, both of which are part of the School of Fundamental Science and Engineering, as well as the Cooperative Major in Advanced Biomedical Sciences, which is part of the Graduate School of Advanced Science and Engineering. This gives the institute access to an interdisciplinary cross-section of different fields of expertise (see the institute’s introduction page for a list of members).

In the field of robotics, for example, Professors Hiroyasu Iwata, Shigeki Sugano, and Atsuo Takanishi of the Department of Modern Mechanical Engineering and Professor Tetsuya Ogata of the Department of Intermedia Art and Science are all engaged in creative efforts related to the fields of robotics and AI. From the Department of Architecture, Professor Shinichi Tanabe is engaged in research into environmental controls, while Professor Takashi Ariga is engaged in research into urban space and environmental design. From the Department of Modern Mechanical Engineering, Professor Mitsuo Umezu is engaged in research into biomedical engineering, Professor Kenji Takizawa is engaged in research into fluid mechanics, and Associate Professor Shinjiro Umezu is engaged in research into micro- and nano-engineering. From the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering, Professor Masayuki Goto is engaged in research into mathematical science and data science, while Professor Takashi Hasuike is engaged in operations research. As you can see, this is a truly diverse group of experts. Aside from those listed above, other faculty members have joined from the Major in Mechanical Engineering (ME), an English curriculum graduate program that was launched in April 2018. These members include Guest Professor Shigehiko Kaneko, who is engaged in research into system controls, Professor Yasutaka Yoshimura, who is engaged in research into architecture, and Associate Professor Sarah Cosentino, who is engaged in research into robotics.

“As part of our efforts to integrate health and medicine into automobiles, Professor Mitsuo Umezu has led our institute in collaborating with researchers specializing in engineering-based medicine. We have high expectations for his collaborative research with hospitals, his advancements in mobility scooters, and other such areas. The young Associate Professor Shinjiro Umezu is developing sensors that monitor biological tissue. In this area, we expect bio-sensing technologies to be introduced. For example, sensors installed on the steering wheel enable the driver’s body temperature to be measured as soon as they grip the wheel. Through cooperation with hospitals, this data can be accumulated for big data analysis.” (Prof. Kusaka)

Figure 3
Health monitoring system that uses sensors installed in steering wheels

Guaranteeing International Competitiveness with Basic Patents

One point that is emphasized in the research strategy is the importance of being conscious about basic patents from the beginning stage of research. For a project that aims to achieve social implementation, it is of course important to cooperate with many companies and build consensus among the relevant industries. However, such efforts would be wasted if the results did not offer international competitiveness.

“In Japan’s manufacturing industry today, we often see ground-breaking technologies being developed, but few products go on to become successful. To change the course of this trend, it is essential that we be conscious about basic patents from as early as the research and development stage, so that international competitiveness can be secured. Furthermore, with regard to automotive products, we must bear in mind the extremely strict safety and road traffic regulations and start considering safety measures during the planning stages for ultra-compact mobility products and mobility scooters, while at the same time engaging in cooperative efforts between industry and the relevant authorities to push forward with deregulation and legal reforms. Unless we have a system that will allow us to move forward with social implementation as soon as the research has been completed, we will be overtaken by overseas manufacturers.” (Prof. Kusaka)

In the first year, the institute will organize a consortium of corporations, including some leading manufacturers, and establish subcommittees to proceed with joint research efforts. Starting with an industry-academia consortium, the plan is to connect this work to applications that will be submitted to major nationwide projects starting next year. Another key objective is to undertake a serious effort to drive education and research in the new field of mechanical engineering frontiers, while moving forward with international personnel exchanges and discussions.

To ensure that research results continue to be leveraged, the predominance of Japanese manufacturing industries must be protected. With this determination as the basis, researchers must free themselves from conventional manufacturing methods and pursue next-generation concepts from the perspective of things, people, and ideas. It seems likely that great achievements can be expected from the endeavors of the Institute for Mechanical Engineering Frontiers.