Electronic Design

Humanoid Robots On The Rise: Get Ready To Invite One Home

In a stroke of good timing with our cover focus on smart motion, I visited the Robots and Vision show in Chicago last month. While the exhibit floor was filled with excellent industrial robotics applications, the advances in humanoid robots really illuminated the future of smart motion. In our quest to engineer a mechanical man, we're also driven to improve on our innate shortcomings wherever possible.

The opening day keynote presentation from Michael Lutomski of NASA offered a fascinating overview of the Robonaut, the humanoid robot created by the Robot Systems Technology Branch at NASA's Johnson Space Center in collaboration with DARPA. Robonaut is an engineering marvel, able to manipulate tools and handle repair missions deemed too dangerous for human astronauts. Its range of motion and dexterity are equal to a spacesuited astronaut.

Master-slave mechatronics control Robonaut's many anthropomorphic elements, like its flexible five-fingered hands, stereo vision, and articulated neck. The human operator's arm, head, and hand movements are communicated via a helmet-mounted display, force and tactile feedback gloves, and posture trackers.

Because Robonaut looks and acts so much like a person, it almost came as a shock to see that instead of legs, it has a tail. The tail's special bolt allows Robonaut to anchor itself to the side of the space station so it doesn't have to worry about becoming lost in space! And if Robonaut is in a dark spot, it doesn't need to fumble about for a flashlight. It can just switch on the LEDs that surround its stereo color camera eyes.

Robonaut is a wonder, but it's also a very specialized machine whose technology developments may take years to float down to the rest of us earthlings. In contrast, the Robotics show's second keynoter, Toyota's Yasuhiro Ota, showed how we might soon have robots in our everyday lives. Yasuhiro offered an impressive look at Toyota's development of "partner robots" being readied to serve as personal assistants.

Toyota has developed walking, rolling, and ridable robots, all three of which performed Busby Berkeley-like choreography at Japan's Expo 2005. For their show piece, they played brass and percussive instruments. (Their artificial lips and diaphragms powered horns in the dance performance.) But for everyday interactions, the robots are programmed with emotional attributes including "warmth and kindness," with the goal of enough intelligence to help with elder care, personal assistance, or mobilework tasks (such as fetching the coffee at car dealerships!)

The ridable robots enable passenger mobility up staircases and other uneven surfaces where wheelchairs or rolling robots can not go. They take advantage of the advanced stabilizing sensor technology Toyota developed for its automobiles.

Out on the Robotics show floor in the Emerging Robotics pavilion, a U.S. startup called Gecko Systems showed its own version of a partner robot, the Mobile Service Robot, which targets safety, security, and service operations. Gecko's fully autonomous MSRs are capable of automatic self-navigation, meaning they can avoid obstacles and plan routes. Talk about "smart motion," the MSRs use a scanning, stepping positioning system with a sensor array of 340 ultrasonic sensorsmounted on the output shaft of a stepping motor.

One possible MSR market is elder care. The robot could follow elderly people to monitor their vital signs, verbally interact and provide reminders about medications, and enable virtual visits by family members and medical professionals via cameras, microphones, and Internet connectivity. With the Gecko System going from prototype to production, the era of robotic assistance may be here in time for us baby boomers to enjoy our golden years in Jetsons-like style.

And as robotics move into our everyday lives, they'll also create opportunities for engineers young and old, maybe allowing you to keep working "hands on" longer than expected. At the Robotics keynote lunch, I sat next to Jim Curme, a robotic repair technician with Robot R&R. He specializes in the daVinci Surgical System from Intuitive Surgical. The daVinci system lets surgeons perform robotic surgery using a 3D vision system linked to robotic arms capped with a variety of EndoWrist Instruments to position and precisely maneuver endoscopic instruments.

The robotic surgery system allows for steadier surgical motion than human hands can manage. This is particularly advantageous for older, experienced surgeons whose hands may not be as steady as they once were. Those talented surgeons now can continue to apply their vast knowledge and perform fine manipulation through tiny incisions with minimally invasive surgery. It's a different sort of "smart motion" that's already serving those older surgeons who aren't yet ready to sit back and be trailed around by a Mobile Service Robot!

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