Researchers in Japan unveiled a robot on Tuesday that can lift a patient weighing up to 80 kg (176 lbs) off the floor and onto a wheelchair, an innovation they say will free healthcare workers from the back-breaking task.

In elderly facilities in Japan, where rapid aging of its society is expected to weigh on the economy, staff are required to lift residents from the floor onto a wheelchair about 40 times a day, a task that is both difficult and energy consuming.

Nicknamed RIBA 2, the robot is soft to the touch, moves around on wheels and responds to voice commands.

Built with rubber sensors, springs and improved joints at its base and lower back, it can crouch and lift a patient off a Japanese futon, a traditional mat placed on the floor.

It can pick a person up from the floor onto a wheelchair or a bed. The earlier robot could only lift 60 kg, said Shijie Guo, leader of the Robot Implementation Research Team.

The team is jointly made up of experts from RIKEN, a natural sciences research institute in Japan, and Tokai Rubber Industries.

It is made of very soft material, of rubber, so it won't hurt a person. Normally, to crouch and lift require a huge motor, which would give us a huge robot. But with this robot, we used a spring, Guo said by telephone.

The project was funded by the Japanese government and Tokai, and the creators hope to eventually commercialize the robot, at a time when more resources are needed to cope with challenges posed by aging populations around the world.

(Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)