One of the challenges with humanoid robots, besides keeping them upright, is finding compact combinations of actuators and joint mechanisms that allow for good range of smooth motion while still having good strength. To achieve that researchers from the IRIM Lab at Korea University of Technology and Education developed the LIMS2-AMBIDEX robotic humanoid upper body that uses a combination of brushless motors, pulleys and some very interesting joint mechanisms. (Video, embedded below.)
From shoulder to fingers, each arm has seven degrees of freedom which allows the robot to achieve some spectacularly smooth and realistic upper body motion. Except for the wrist rotation actuator, all the actuators are housed in the shoulders, and motion is transferred to the required joint through an array of cables and pulleys. This keeps the arm light and its inertia low, allowing the arms to move rapidly without breaking anything or toppling the entire robot.
The wrist and elbow mechanisms are especially interesting. The wrist emulates rolling contact between two spheres with only revolute joints. It also allows a drive shaft to pass down the centre of the mechanism and transfer rotating motion from one end to the other. The elbow is a rolling double jointed affair that allows true 180 degrees of rotation.
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!
Most of us have seen employees of Boston Dynamics kicking their robots, and many of us instinctively react with horror. More recently I’ve watched my own robots being petted, applauded for their achievements, and yes, even kicked.
Why do people react the way they do when mechanical creations are treated as if they were people, pets, or worse? There are some very interesting things to learn about ourselves when considering the treatment of robots as subhuman. But it’s equally interesting to consider the ramifications of treating them as human.
The Boston Dynamics Syndrome
Atlas being pushed
Spot being kicked
Shown here are two snapshots of Boston Dynamics robots taken from their videos about Spot and Atlas. Why do scenes like this create the empathic reactions they do? Two possible reasons come to mind. One is that the we anthropomorphize the human-shaped one, meaning we think of it as human. That’s easy to do since not only is it human-shaped but the video shows it carrying a box using human-like movements. The second snapshot perhaps evokes the strongest reactions in anyone who owns a dog, though its similarity to any four-legged animal will usually do.
Is it wrong for Boston Dynamics, or anyone else, to treat robots in this way? Being an electronic and mechanical wizard, you might have an emotional reaction and then catch yourself with the reminder that these machines aren’t conscious and don’t feel emotional pain. But it may be wrong for one very good reason.
Ever dreamed of a real, life-sized Transformer in your garage? The Turkish startup Letrons now offers you exactly that: Their animatronic Autobot drives like a car, transforms like a Transformer, and supposedly fights off space threats with its built-in smoke machine and sound effects.
Letrons’s Transformer seems to be built upon a BMW E92 coupé chassis. According to the company, the beast is packed with powerful hydraulics and servo motors, allowing it to transform and move fast. Sensors all around the chassis give it some interactivity and prevent it from crushing innocent bystanders when in remote-control mode. Interestingly, its movable arms aren’t attached to the body, but to its extendable side-wings and feature hands with actuated wrists and fingers. The Autobot also can move its head, which pops right out of the hood.
Admittedly, Letrons must have spent a lot of time on the dark side of the moon and working in secrecy before they released footage of a working and polished prototype. It’s unclear if Letron’s Transformers will cooperate with the US military in solving armed conflicts, but they are certainly good for a show. Enjoy the video below!
Coming from a lab in France is The Poppy Project, an open source humanoid robot that’s at least as cool as ASIMO.
Poppy was designed as an affordable bipedal robot for use in education and art. It’s a small robot at just over 80 cm in height, but it can walk, move its arms, rotate its torso, and interact with bags-of-meat humans with two cameras and an LCD face.
Although Poppy is open source, that doesn’t mean it’s exactly cheap; the current design includes twenty-one Robotis Dynamixels MX-28 robotic actuators, actually servos with magnetic encoders, temperature sensor, and an ARM microcontroller. These actuators sell for about $200, meaning Poppy contains $4000 in motors alone. The estimated cost of the entire robot is €7500-8000, or about $10,000 to $11,000 USD.
Still, there’s an incredible software platform that comes along with Poppy, and being open source any enterprising engineer can take up the project and attempt to bring the costs down. We’d love to take one out for a walk. Just get rid of the hands. That’s too far down the uncanny valley for us. Video below.