Why do I call Asimo the complete package? Well the Honda Robot has gathered many abilities over the years. While most robots are conceived for a particular purpose, the Japanese robot has been around for 10 years and has learned a whole bunch of things during this time. And Honda is now capitalizing by creating walking assist robots to help people walking effortlessly. Let's what it can do first, and then how hard it was for Honda to create a walking robot.
The Honda robot has blown ten candles in October 2010. While 10 years seems really old for a robot, I believe this is what gives him his strength. Indeed, in the world of robotics, when you create a new robot, you have to write all the basic elements like the walking patterns and so on before you can really start making something interesting. Imagine you had to rewrite Windows each time you create a new computer! But Asimo has long passed this stage and has now lots of awesome moves to show off.
Maybe you think that the Honda robot leading an orchestra is awesome, but it's actually one of the lamest thing it can do! Why? Because in this case, Asimo is just following a recorded set of movements, that were carefully crafted by a team of 3D animators and roboticists. In other words, it's like watching a 3D character from an animation movie, but in more real. It's cool, but it's not what a humanoid robot is about.
No, a humanoid robot is something that moves around freely, understands and follows your order, learns about its environment and works to make his human masters happier. And that's what the Asimo robot can. And that's what is awesome about it.
Asimo can see you, recognize you and ask your name. Later, it will call you by your name to tell you that your tea (it's a Japanese robot!) is ready. And of course you don't have to go get your tea: the fantastic Honda robot will bring it to you, either carrying a tray (without spilling) or pushing a cart.
Next, suppose you are actually a guest at a conference, and you don't know where you should go. Asimo knows, and will hold your hand to guide you through the crowded corridors. On the way, he will say "hello" to the people he knows and carefully avoid all the people and obstacles on the way. This is more than walking: he can follow your speed, detect obstacles and reconfigure his trajectory in real-time, even in presence of moving obstacles. This is something few robots can do, and for those that can, they usually have only one of these many functions.
Asimo can even climbs up and down stairs, which is pretty challenging actually. And finally, the Honda robot will wish you good luck for your speech and shake your hand. Again, the action of shaking hands mean the robot can carefully balance between leading the movement and following your hand. You don't want to be pulled by the robot, but you shouldn't have to pull him either. This ability is called compliance, and it's very hard to reach.
Honda robots in 1986, 1991 and 1996.
Images are from Morio/Wikipedia
The first walking robot from Honda appeared in 1986: E0 was just two legs that could only go straight. It had to wait 5 seconds between each very slow steps. Honda understood that to create a full humanoid robot that walks like human, it had to improve everything: the hardware, the computer but most importantly the understanding of human walking.
The Honda robot research team thus started to enlarge its horizons. It studied walking on humans and animals and made new versions almost every two years. In 1989, the E2 reached a walking speed of 1.2 km/h on flat areas. Is that good? Compared to a human, it's ridiculous! You and me usually walk around 5 km/h. Still, it was a great improvement for humanoid robots. And it was still the beginning.
From there, the team created new robots almost every year to perform more stable walking patterns and allow robots to walk on slopes or soft surfaces. This rapid development cycle brought great results. Until then, the robots were still simple legs carrying a big computer. In 1993, Honda robots were ready for the next big step: the upper body.
It's in 1993 that Honda gave their humanoid robots their first arms. The head was still a big computer block, and the whole thing was 1.9 meters tall (must be scary!). It was already able to pick up things on the ground, grab doorknobs and also started to synchronize legs and arms motion for a better walk. Impressive for a robot of 1990's.
In 1996, Honda had a humanoid robot good enough showing to the world, and enough advance compared to their concurrent to know no one would catch up on them soon. They revealed their research publicly and inspired thousand of roboticists around the world. Japanese robots started becoming more and more focus around humanoid robots and in 2000, Asimo was born. That finishes the story of Honda robots, but not the future...
All the images of the past robots come from Morio, a user on Wikipedia. There are used on two short articles on the Honda robot E series and P series. They are short but they present the different robots in a cool table. Very instructive. To see these pages in a new tab, click here to see the page on the Honda E series, and here to see the page on the Honda P series.
It's cool to have humanoid robots, but the truth is that even Asimo does little more than showing off as a super high-tech and super expensive receptionist. But Honda has started to use their knowledge to create walking assist device technologies.
Basically, they have two main products: the stride assist device and the weight assist device. The stride assist device is a type of exoskeleton. You wear it like a belt and it pushes/pulls on your leg as you walk. Though most images and videos from Honda show young men and women walking elegantly with the device, it's actually intended for old people who start losing strength in their legs. Engadget explains that it is not really helping if you have no problem walking normally.
The other technology from Honda Robot is the weight assist device. It looks like two thin legs with a little seat and it is designed to help in factories. The goal is to help people when their work requires repetitive knee bending movements. The device will support part of the weight, making it easier for the workers' knees and muscles, preventing muscle and articulation problems.
The two technologies are still being developed, and I could find no dates for their release in the market. But my guess is that it should be available around 2013, in two years.
A newer model is the seat that looks like a mono-cycle combined with a segway. It's a new transportation device called the Honda robot U3-X unicycle. It's a cool thing and it seems more practical than a Segway thanks to its small size. The problem is that it doesn't seem fit for big people, just like the weight assist device. Since Japanese people are mostly slim people, it seems Honda is focusing on this population.
Another experimental area for the Honda robot group is brain controlled robotics, or Brain-Machine Interface. For now the device is a big chair with big cap like the oven for hair in hair salons. Not ready yet...
Other pages that may interest you:
The Nao Developer Program is for anyone who ever wanted a Nao. Learn what you get and what you can do with your future robot.
Japanese robots are awesome. Discover more of them: the funny ones, the big ones, and the most advanced ones.
The HAL exoskeleton was created to help people heal from spinal injury. It is the only wildly used exoskeleton to this day. Made in Japan, of course.