Many of us have the unfounded notion that Japan is swarming withrobots. Okay, well it might not becompletely unfounded, but most of them aren’t designed to take the lead in an unpredictable disaster situation. For all its expertise with robotics, Japan was unable to deploy robots during the Fukushima meltdown that could have saved lives or even made it possible to stop the meltdown in the first place. Now, Honda is designing a new version of ASIMO that could be useful in a dangerous setting to keep humans out of harm’s way.
ASIMO is arguably the most advanced humanoid robot in the world, so why didn’t Honda put its multi-million dollar investment on the line during Fukushima? It’s not the cost, it’s that ASIMO would have been essentially useless. Despite being able to walk, carry objects, and even break into a short sprint, it’s not capable of navigating the chaotic environment of a damaged nuclear reactor. Just one bit of rubble in the way and suddenly your multi-million dollar robot has fallen over and broken after accomplishing nothing of value.
This obvious shortcoming has led Honda engineers to begin work on prototype disaster response robots. With all the work that has been done on ASIMO over the years, Honda alreadyhas a working robot that’s able to negotiate obstacles and climb ladders. The robot’s design is described in two papers that were presented to the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. One explains the way the robot can shift from bipedal to quadrupedal when necessary to squeeze under something, and the other covered the make use of ladders and narrow walkways.
The thing that has always made ASIMO impressive is that it walks like a human, which is exceedingly difficult for robots. So why go to all the trouble of making the still-unnamed disaster response robot humanoid in the first place? A wheeled or treaded robot might be more stable and faster, but the world (and especially industrial sites like Fukushima) are designed for humans. There are ladders, stairs, doors, and walkways that a rolling robot would be unable to use. A humanoid robot is vastly more useful. Above is what Honda is shooting for.
Honda hasn’t provided full details on how the disaster response robot works, but it appears to have a sensor cluster on the head and a large battery package on the back. The sensors make continuous real-time measurements of the robot’s position and velocity, allowing the software to compensate for any errors when walking or climbing. The same sensors help it move to quadruped mode without maintaining a static center of gravity. The transformation only takes about two seconds, thanks to a pair of flywheels in the torso.
There’s no target for when the disaster robot will be ready for prime time, but I imagine that’ll happen some time after they give it a name. “Experimental humanoid robot” doesn’t have the same ring as ASIMO.