Sci-fi TV programmes aside, until now the only robots we’ve seen have been expensive toys rather than practical machines. This week's Robodex 2003 show in Yokohama, Japan, hopes to show the more serious side of the robot industry.

A number of companies and universities are working on robot technology designed to either save lives or make them easier. Among these are machines designed to perform tasks humans find dangerous such as clearing mines.

"This robot is designed to dig the ground and explode mines. It can do this with no electricity so we can take it to very remote places such as the interior of Afghanistan," said student at Tokyo Institute of Technology student Naota Furihata of the Mine Hand robot he has been developing since April 2002. It is now close to completion.

The Japanese government and several non-governmental groups funded development of the machine and are now interested in taking it to Afghanistan to use in for actual mine clearance work. Some of Furihata's fellow students showed off robots designed for similar purposes at the exhibition. They included a remotely operated robot that can travel over dangerous ground and search out mines using a sensor mounted on a long arm.

Nearby, Chiba University was also showing several mine clearance robots, including the Comet III, which weighs a ton. Considerably bigger and more complex than Furihata's machine, it walks on six legs in a fashion similar to a spider and is designed to make the job of clearing mines much less dangerous.

Universities are also spending time researching robotic technologies that can aid people in everyday tasks. Kanagawa Institute of Technology and the Science University of Tokyo were both showing off 'wearable robots.'

Still in the experimental stage, these are eventually intended to take the form of items of clothing with built in robotic technology that will enhance the strength of the person wearing it. This could be used to enable a single nurse, for example, to lift a patient out of a bed and place them in a wheelchair, as was demonstrated at Robodex using a prototype suit.