Japan continues to see an increase in tourism to the country, particularly as the Abe government stokes tourism as a major source of economic revenue for the country.

That's led to an unforeseen problem: How do airlines manage the massive influx of luggage?

Well, if you're Japan, you do it the same way you're been trying to tackle all your other problems: through robotics.

This week, Japan Airlines (JAL; Japanese name: 日本航空) unveiled the use of a new power assistance suit for luggage handlers at Haneda and Narita Airports. Developed by Panasonic offshoot Atoun, the suit travels the length of the human spine and neck, with a base that grips the hips. It contains sensors to detect when a person is bending and lifting, so that the appropriate level of power assistance can kick in at just the right time.

Above: JAL unveils the power suit at a press conference, and workers show it in action for the first time.

The issue isn't that luggage is getting heavier - it's that there's so much of it. And Japan, which is grappling with a labor shortage brought out by a rapidly aging and dwindling population, is having a hard time finding enough people to perform the work of lifting luggage out of planes and onto conveyors. The introduction of power assistance suits means that strength is no longer a factor in luggage handling, and that anyone - men, women, and even the elderly - can now perform the work, which expands the pool of available labor.

JAL is introducing 10 suits apiece at both Haneda and Narita. This is actually the second foray into assistance suits in Japan: All Nippon Airways (ANA) introduced Hal, a power suit from Cyberdyne, into numerous regional airports in 2017, and currently has 80 units deployed.

Personally, I like seeing this shift to assistive technology. First, it makes sense as a societal enabler that can distribute work across a larger labor pool. Second, I think it will prove to be lower cost in the long run. We're farther away from completely automated operations than people think we are - as was demonstrated recently when Hen-na Hotel fired half of its robot staff. Robotic technology is not only pricey to purchase, but costly to maintain in both hardware and software. Plus, you still need humans around to handle malfunctions or intervene when automation comes up short. Assistive technology is a nice compromise that not only reduces the amount of tech involved, but puts it under control of a human operator who can make complex decisions.

(JP) Link: JAL Unveils Power Assistance; Unveiled at Haneda, It Lightens the Burden on Hips

日航、パワーアシストスーツを公開 羽田に導入、腰の負担を軽減
日本航空は12日、パナソニック子会社のロボットベンチャー、ATOUNの開発した力仕事をサポートする機器「アトウン モデルY」の羽田空港での導入状況を報道陣に公開した。