Some days, we might be forgiven for believing Boston Dynamics has cornered the market on walking robots. They (and other players) are making incredible progress in their field, but three years ago Disney, trying to create autonomous, free-walking robotic actors for some of their more diminutive film characters, found none of the existing platforms were appropriate. So they set their Imagineering department to work on “Project Kiwi”, and we are now seeing the fruits of those efforts.
Research on bipedal robots has amassed over the years, and as the saying goes, if these Imagineers saw further it was by standing on the shoulders of larger robotic platforms. However, the Project Kiwi designers have made a laundry list of innovations in their process of miniaturization, from the “marrow conduit” cooling system which forces air through hollow bones, to gearing that allows actuators to share motors even across joints. The electronics are distributed around the skeleton on individual PCBs with ribbon flex cables to reduce wiring, and almost every component is custom fabricated to meet the complex size and weight requirements.
Even in this early prototype, Disney’s roots in life-like animatronics are evident. Groot’s movements are emotive, if a bit careful, and software can express a variety of personalities through his gaits and postures. The eyes and face are as expressive as we’ve come to expect (though a keen eye for seams puts off some definite Westworld vibes). Reportedly, this version can handle gentle shoves and contact, but we do spot a safety cable still attached to the head. So there’s probably some way to go before we’ll see this interacting with the general public in a park.
Fans of technology will recall a number of years when Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo seemed to be everywhere. In addition to its day job in a research lab, Asimo had a public relations side gig showing everyone that Honda is about more than cars and motorcycles. From trade shows to television programs, even amusement parks and concert halls, Asimo worked a busy publicity schedule. Now a retirement party may be in order, since the research project has reportedly been halted.
Asimo’s activity has tapered off in recent years so this is not a huge surprise. Honda’s official Asimo site itself hasn’t been updated in over a year. Recent humanoid robots in media are more likely to be in context of events like DARPA Robotics Challenge or from companies like Boston Dynamics. Plus the required technology has become accessible enough for us to build our own two-legged robots. So its torch has been passed on, but Asimo would be remembered as the robot who pioneered a lot of thinking into how humanoid robots would interact with flesh and blood humans. It was one of the first robots who could recognize human waving as a gesture, and wave back in return.
Many concepts developed from Asimo will live on as Honda’s research team shift focus to less humanoid form factors. We can see Honda’s new ambitions in their concept video released during CES 2018 (embedded below.) These robots are still designed to live and work alongside people, but now they are specialized to different domains and they travel on wheels. Which is actually a step closer to the Jetsons’ future, because Rosie rolls on wheels!
We humans walk funny. Pivoting one leg forward at the hip creates an offset that puts us off-balance sideways. We have to compensate for this with each step we take. Many robots handle this by instead taking small, calculated steps. Enter NABiRoS, the Non Anthropomorphic Bipedal Robot System (link to the video below). The ‘Non Anthropomorphic’ means that it doesn’t walk like a human, and yet the ‘Bipedal’ means it still walks on two legs. The difference is that it walks sideways.
Here’s how the folks from RoMeLa (Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory) at UCLA did it. Imagine you rotated both your legs 90 degrees such that they were facing in opposite directions. Then you rotate your upper body 90 degrees to face one of your legs. You can now move your legs to walk in the direction you’re facing and there’ll be no more tilting sideways each time you take a step. The joints are also simpler as only a single degree of freedom is needed in each of the knee and hip joints. The ankles and feet are done with a compliant, or an elastic, joint much as you see with a lot of prosthetic legs. As you can see in the video below, in addition to walking, they can do some surprisingly active things such as hopping up and down and what we can only call skipping. In fact, the result is sometimes very human.
For some reason, we seem to really want our robots to walk on two legs like we do. And this despite how much the robots themselves want to be made out of motors, which match up so naturally with wheels. The result is a proliferation of inventive walking mechanisms. Here’s another.
Gyroman is a 3D printed gyroscope with legs. The gyroscope is geared down to lift one leg and then the other. First-semester physics, that we still find a little bit magical, makes the gyro precess and the robot turns a bit. Time these just right and it walks. See the video below for a demo. (Admittedly, Gyroman looks like he’s had a bit too much to drink as he winds down.)
There’s just something about the idea of robots turning into everyday objects that fascinates us all. It seems Japan outdoes the world in that category, and the J-Deite project is no exception. J-Deite Quarter is the first transforming robot to come from the collaborative project between [Kenji Ishida] of Brave Robotics, [Watur Yoshizaki] of Asratec Corp., and Tomy Co. Ltd. If Brave Robotics sounds familiar, that’s because this isn’t the first transforming robot [Kenji Ishida] has produced, nor the first featured on Hackaday.
The J-Deite Quarter weighs 77lbs (35kg) and can run for an hour on a single battery charge. It’s joints are powered by Futaba servos. It is controlled by the proprietary V-SIDO OS designed by [Watur Yoshizaki]. As a robot, it stands at 4.25 feet (1.3m). It walks at a rather slow speed of 0.6mph (1km/hr). It has several points of articulation; it can bend its arms and flex its fingers. In less than 30 seconds, the robot transforms into an equally long two-seat sports car with a maximum speed of just over 6mph (10km/hr). Overall, the J-Deite Quarter is no speed demon, but it is noteworthy for being functional in both forms.
The web site has a cute backstory featuring a green meteorite that allows the “real” J-Deiter to communicate with the developers trying to create a robot in its image. Along with the video, it resembles a marketing ploy for a toy, which could explain Tomy’s involvement. After all, Tomy, along with Hasbro, developed the original Transformers toy line. Unfortunately, the J-Deiter Quarter is just a prototype, with no plans for mass production at this time. Instead, the project’s focus is on making a bigger and better J-Deiter. There are plans for a J-Deiter Half (8-foot-tall) to be developed by 2016, with the final goal of creating a 16-foot-tall transforming robot by 2020.
Enjoy the video that shows what J-Deite Quarter is capable of (with added sound effects, of course) after the break. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden hankering to watch some Transformers and Voltron cartoons.
[Ye Guan] has always been fascinated by walking robots — so he decided to build his own. It’s called Project Sentinel, and he’s loosely based the design off of the Sentinel Walker from Warhammer 40K, and the two-legged AT-AT walker from Star Wars.
Both of these robots are based off of a bird’s walking style. Scientifically this is called the digitgrade walking style, which means they stand and walk on their digits (toes) — this typically allows them to move more quickly and quietly than most other animals.
[Ye] has managed to achieve this for his project using 8 servo motors, balancing the center of mass directly above the feet. Think about it like a reverse pendulum, which is supported by the servos torque and balanced by a gyroscope. He plans to have it fully autonomous with sensor feedback.
It’s not done yet, but he’s already released all the CAD files and a nice build log for anyone to attempt it themselves — we’re excited to see the final product. Just take a look at it walking in place after the break!