There's a natural tendency to underestimate the difficulty of creating reliable autonomous operation in robots. On the surface it seems pretty simple - just setup some sensors, create the right feedback and control behaviors, flip the switch, and off it goes. But, in the real world, things are never that simple. Unexpected factors suddenly come into play. Things like magnetic distortions caused by the supporting building structure or some equipment can throw that compass sensor you were depending on totally off course.
Still, with a lot of focus, dedication, and a challenging spirit, it's still possible to overcome difficulties like that and go on to win. That was clearly demonstrated by Naoko Hikima and her cute bear MANOI AT01 robot at the recent Kyosho Athlete Humanoid Cup competition in Tokyo.
Hikima-san, who manages the Robo-Spot facility in Akihabara for Kondo, decided to attempt the autonomous 5 meter sprint competition in spite of it's well known difficulty. The robots, two at a time, line up at the start line and when the buzzer sounds the operators throw the switches to start their robots. After that, the robots are totally on their own to complete the sprint. Absolutely no operator intervention or control is allowed.
There were several heats during the day, so each competitor had the opportunity to learn from earlier runs to adjust and improve their performance. In the first few attempts Hikima's AT01 would proceed partway down the course - about a third of the distance, then veer sharply off to its left until it was stopped by a safety wall along the course edge.
After a few attempts with the same result, Hikima-san found what turned out to be exactly the right combination of adjustments. You can see the successful run in the video below.
Having to stand by watching her robot do its thing without being able to interrupt must have been very stressful. Perhaps even as stressful as all the media and television attention.
There's a real bonding that takes place between the robot builders and their creations. They are usually treated with lots of tenderness and respect, like members of the family.
Hikima-san chatting with Takahashi (left) the creator of the original MANOI PF01.
Kyosho Athlete Humanoid Cup Competition (Japanese)
Kondo Robo Spot Facility in Akihabara (Japanese)
MANOI Information and Videos (English)