Humanoid Robotics Speeding

robotUntil the last decade, robots were mostly comprised of chunks of metal moving on wheels or multiple legs. A couple of showcases held last week, however, showed recent technologies have enabled South Korea to take huge strides in the development of humanoid robots, whose overall appearance is based on the human body.Among the items at the recent technology exhibition at the Korea Institute of Science & Technology (KIST) were Buddy, a robot designed to display various facial expressions, and Mahru III, a two-legged humanoid robot jointly developed by KIST and local conglomerate Samsung Group.

Buddy, with moving eyes and eyebrows as well as flexible lips, makes diverse facial expressions in response to its environment and can also track the movements of people nearby. The robot is equipped with functions such as lip synchronizing and the ability to mock human faces, in an attempt to become a `buddy of the human race,” its developer Oh Kyung-geune, a KIST research scientist, said.The robots can be used for medical and social welfare-related purposes. In advanced uses, they can serve as a platform to research the interaction and operation of robots and also as a means of education for mentally-challenged and autistic children, he added.

Mahru III, redesigned from its previous version, copies the movements of a man wearing a special suit, sensing the person’s muscle movements.

Elsewhere, the country saw Thursday its first homegrown bipedal robot running at a public event. At an annual award ceremony for robot developers here, HUBO 2, developed by Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), showcased its running function.

HUBO 2, the world’s third full-sized humanoid robot capable of running, can run 3.6 kilometers per hour (kph) with 30-centimeter strides, with its walking speed improving to 1.8 kph from the 1.2 kph of the previous edition. Both feet of the robot are simultaneously off the ground during running for up to 30 milliseconds.

The problem of keeping the robot balanced with both feet off the ground has been a daunting challenge for developers in many countries. The KAIST team solved this problem by placing a special sensor in HUBO 2’s lower abdomen.

The new robot stands at 1.25 meters, the same height as the first HUBO, but is 10 kilograms lighter at 45 kilograms. It can also walk without bending its knees to save substantial energy in operations.

It also can grasp objects with five fingers, shake hands and deliver words in sign language.

Before HUBO 2, two Japan-made robots ― Honda’s ASIMO and Toyota’s Partner robots ― achieved the feat of running.

This is a rapid and remarkable improvement in Korea’s short history in robotics engineering, industry watchers say. KAIST began researching for humanoid robots in 2002, led by professor Oh Jun-ho, and developed the first prototype, KHR-1, in 2003, without a head and arms.

A huge upgrade took place when the college unveiled the first edition of HUBO two years later. HUBO, whose name derives from “humanoid robot,” had voice recognition and synthesis faculties with sophisticated visual functions.

In 2005, KAIST released the world’s first android head to be mounted on HUBO, in a joint project with Texas-based Hanson Robotics during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Seoul. The robot was dubbed “Albert Einstein HUBO,” as the head was an exact recreation of the late physicist.

The KAIST Humanoid Robot Research Center said the achievements by HUBO 2 will pave the way for Korea to emerge as a global leader in humanoid robotics. While Japan is still leading the way, Korea’s development pace is narrowing the gap, according to the center.

Japan first developed a humanoid robot in 1971, but it took 32 years before ASIMO became the world’s first running robot in 2003.

“This is a huge step forward in the development of a complete human-like robot,” said Prof. Oh, the head of the center. “Follow-up projects on HUBO 2 will be about giving it advanced functions, with a quicker running speed and freer switching of its moving direction.”