With the slow, heavy steps reminiscent of their earliest sci-fi counterparts, humanoid robotic progress marches on. Sure, we already have giant arms that help build our cars, oversized hockey pucks that vacuum our floors or mow our lawns, and rovers that explore distant planets, but that’s not enough. When we think of robots, what we really imagine are machines that look and act at least a bit like us.
Blame it on Lost in Space, The Jetsons, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Transformers or WALL-E, depending on your generation, but the idea of robots with some human characteristics -- arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouths and even personalities -- have become part of our culture. Turning that idea into reality has kept teams of engineers and scientists busy for decades, and much progress is being made.
Divide and Conquer
When designing any new, complex engineering system, it’s often more realistic to begin with one piece of the whole. DE’s Engineering on the Edge blog has chronicled many such robotic milestones.
For example, iRobot (the company that brought us the Roomba vacuum cleaner) has developed a three-fingered hand that has enough fine motion control to turn a key in a lock and open a door. It was developed with support from Harvard and Yale, and funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (See page 18 in this issue for how DARPA is supporting disaster response robotics.) Another company giving robotics a hand is Robot Rebuilt, which is researching the use of sensors to calibrate grip, find the edges of an object, and detect force.
The US Navy has begun investigating the use of pheromones to make trails for robots to “sniff” and follow, and is working with Virginia Tech on a firefighting robot that can see through smoke and navigate ship passageways. It’s also developing a Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot that it hopes will be able to carry wounded soldiers out of danger.
The University of Essex’s CRONOS series of robots focus on the internals, including muscles, bones and joints with degrees of freedom that mimic our own.
MIT’s Humanoid Robotics Group has developed many robotic technologies, including Kismet, which is designed to recognize human social cues and react appropriately with head movement, facial expressions and vocalizations. At the University of Pisa in Italy, the Hybrid Engine for Facial Expressions Synthesis can give expressions to the group’s FACE robot via 32 motors and a polymer skin.
Researchers at the University of Arizona have developed robotic legs that mimic a natural human gait using load sensors in the feet. They’re working on adding vision and tactile capabilities to allow the legs to correct themselves after a stumble.
These are just some of the many robotic research breakthroughs being made. Imagine combining them all, and a science fiction humanoid robot seems just around the corner. In reality, it’s still quite a ways to that corner.
Greater than the Sum of its Parts
As advancements are made in individual technologies needed to move humanoid robotic development forward, an obvious next step is to incorporate that knowledge into a system that can interact with humans with some degree of autonomy.
One example of work toward this end can be seen in the ECCEROBOT, which stands for Embodied Cognition in a Compliantly Engineered Robot. It builds on the CRONOS research with the goal of investigating human-like cognitive abilities. The ECCEROBOT is intended to be anthropomimetic, which means it has the same inner structures as a human form so that it can interact with the world in a more humanlike manner. It has polymer bones, polyethylene tendons, visual, auditory and tactile sensors, as well as a behavioral subsystem. The project is funded by the European Union.
Back at MIT researchers are building on their own experience developing robots to build a platform called Cog (short for cognition). The Humanoid Robotics Group at MIT says Cog “seeks to bring together each of the many subfields of artificial intelligence into one unified, coherent, functional whole.” Cog is a torso, and the researchers have given it a face, arms, basic social skills and a biochemical subsystem so it can react to its own energy consumption. The goal is to make it possible for the robot to interact with humans in a human-like way, which will allow the researchers to learn from those interactions and advance robotics accordingly.
While the engineering technology of humanoid robotics is amazing, society may not be ready for them quite yet. There’s no rush. The robots are coming, but they’re coming one step at a time.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at email@example.com.