Humanoid robot walking is difficult, much more difficult than most people think. We assume that it’s easy because we, and most people we know, can do it without thinking. But we forget all the months, even years, of practice, trial and error, bumps and bruises, that we put in as children before we got to the point where we could walk smoothly without effort and without having to focus on what we were doing.
Yoshihiro Shibata first designed the Thunderbolt humanoid robot almost eight years, but it still represents some of the leading edge technology in terms of design and performance, especially its passive walking motions.
Technology and gadgets are exciting, sometimes even compelling. We see something new, something on the cutting edge, and we just have to have one. Rationality and reason go out the window as we whip out our credit card and quickly consummate the purchase. Then, almost inevitably our fantastic purchase loses our attention after a few weeks or months and is relegated to gathering dusk in some closet or corner of the garage.
Purchases that last are those that fill our basic needs and continue to provide us with satisfaction day after day, week after week. Robots are like that. Tens of thousands of home/personal robots have been sold over the past decade, but very few of them are still playing an active role in the life of their human owners. And, the exceptions, those robots that have really delivered on their promises and continuously contribute to improving quality of life, like ZORA ROBOT, give us significant insight into the way that robots and humans can live and work together building a bright future.
ROBO-ONE was originally conceived as “Humanoid Robot Entertainment” with the unstated goal of stimulating a whole generation of Japanese, and international, developers to get involved in the humanoid robot movement. Everyone knew it would be impossible to replicate the performance of Honda’s ASIMO robot on a hobbyist budget, but it would be fun to see how far they could push the envelope in that direction.
The Japanese have a fascination with trains that seems to be unique in the world. Video arcades here (yes, they still exist in Japan) have console games that let you play train conductor for the Bullet Train and other famous rail lines, and it’s not uncommon to see middle aged adult men along with the queue of kids waiting to enjoy the games.
Most robot contests award outstanding performance. All the awards and glory goes to the smarter competitors that take advantage of the best, often state-of-the-art technology. Of course, that comes at a price, building champion level robots isn’t cheap. And, more importantly, it leaves out the vast majority of people who are interested in robotics but can’t compete at the top level, or can’t afford the cost of entry.
The answer, at least in Japan, is HEBOCON: The Robot Contest for Dummies!
PARROT, well known for creating unique products incorporating interesting technology at affordable prices with a great deal of flair, held a press event in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, Japan in mid-March to preview the BeBop Drone. Although the drone had previously been released in other countries, it was new to Japan users and the media, and drew lots of attention and questions.
Everyone knows how crazy the Japanese are about humanoid robots, but it's hard to really appreciate how extreme the mania is unless you can go behind the scenes and experience it first hand. In mid-March we were lucky enough to have access to all the pit areas for the 10th bi-annual ROBO-ONE Light competition.
Keep in mind that this is just one of the many humanoid competitions that take place regularly in Japan. There are regional competitions across the nation, some colleges and universities stage regular competitions, and some robot companies like KONDO hold competitions as well. It’s hard to get a good estimate of how many people are actively involved in the sport, and learning experience, nationwide. We can only judge from the large crowds of participants and audience that turn out in force for events like this.
Moreover, each one of those robots represents an investment of typically USD$1,500 or more plus countless hours of assembly, testing, motion creation, modifications/improvements, and practice. It’s not unusual for a fan dedicated to the sport to invest USD$10,000 or more constantly evolving and improving their robot over a period of many years.
Competitors come from all walks of life, age groups, and genders. While some of the participants are professional engineers, many are students, housewives, and even truck drivers. The one thing they have in common is a passion for robotics.
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