Building humanoid robots that can do useful things in the real world, not just research labs, is very difficult. Besides being extremely expensive to build and buy, bipedal locomotion is the major hurdle robotics developers have yet to perfect. Quadruped robots such as Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini and ANYbotics’ ANYmal are more stable walkers and, therefore, will hit the job market before their two-legged friends.
The WABOT-1, unveiled in 1973 by Tokyo’s Waseda University, is thought to be the world’s first full-scale humanoid robot. Humanoid robots have come a long way since the WABOT-1, but they still have not made their way out into the real world.
Companies and engineers have been working on bipedal locomotion and humanoid robots for decades. Below are five companies pushing the envelope and trying to find real-world homes for humanoid robots.
We’re excluding robots that use wheels since they are not truly humanoid. Sure, wheeled-robots are easier to engineer, cheaper to buy and build, and currently have more practical applications, but what fun is that? Using wheels is cheating the system, in our eyes, when it comes to developing humanoid robots.
Here are five humanoid robots to keep an eye on in 2019.
Boston Dynamics Atlas
Any discussion about humanoid robots begins, of course, with Atlas from Waltham, Mass.-based Boston Dynamics. Marc Raibert and company have set the bar so high it is unfair to other humanoid robot developers.
Atlas has come a long way since it was unveiled in July 2013 (watch the video below). It was designed to participate in the DARPA Robot Challenge. Three years later, the next generation of Atlas was unveiled, and it could walk on snow, pick up boxes, and get up by itself after falling down, which humanoids are known to do now and then.
But that all pales in comparison with what we saw in 2017, when Atlas developed the ability to jump onto boxes and do backflips, and in 2018, when Atlas was jogging and doing parkour.
Only Boston Dynamics (and its owners at SoftBank) knows what is next for Atlas — perhaps improvements to its ability to work in warehouses or additional athletic abilities – but rest assured something is coming.
During his keynote at the Robotics Summit & Expo, Raibert said we would hear from Atlas in 2019, as well as a real application for the company’s wheel-leg hybrid robot Handle. Boston Dynamics is also commercializing SpotMini this year, so 2019 is quite a pivotal year for legged robots.
UBTech, a Chinese company recently valued at more than $5 billion, first unveiled Walker as a bipedal robot at CES 2018. One year later, Walker showed up to CES 2019 with a torso, two arms, two hands and a head to become a full-scale humanoid robot that stands nearly five feet tall and weighs 170 lb.
Walker performed well at CES, albeit in controlled areas and demos, showing off its ability to grasp and manipulate objects and self-balance. Walker uses 36 actuators and features proprietary Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) abilities for planning out paths and avoiding obstacles.
This is where it gets interesting. UBTech is marketing Walker by saying, “it has the intelligence and capabilities to make a helpful impact in any home or business in the very near future” and that it “aims to one day be an indispensable part of your family.” Stop us if you have heard that line before.
Walker is an incredible display of UBTech’s engineering prowess, but that statement is a loaded one. UBTech did not release pricing or availability information for Walker. We will have humanoid robots in homes or businesses eventually, just not the “very near future.”
5G holds a lot of potential for robotics. If 5G meets its advertised median speeds of 1 Gbps, it will have a speed 20 times faster than 4G and lower latency (about 1ms) that will enable robots to process more data in real time, learn new skills, and better communicate with other robots and humans. Up until late 2018, Toyota had only remotely controlled its third-generation T-HR3 humanoid robot over a wired connection.
But using a 5G connection, Toyota recently wirelessly controlled the T-HR3 from a distance of 6.2 miles. Toyota said the 5G kept signal delays to a minimum, allowing for smooth operation. A user can control the T-HR3 through the Master Maneuvering System (MMS). According to Toyota, this “allows the entire body of the robot to be operated instinctively with wearable controls that map hand, arm and foot movements to the robot.” Force feedback from the T-HR3’s 10-fingered hands ensures precise control of objects by the remote operator.
Toyota developed the T-HR3 with the aim of creating a partner robot that can support human activities in a variety of circumstances, such as homes and healthcare institutions.
For years, Honda was unchallenged when it came to developing humanoid robots. It introduced Asimo in 1986 and often showed the humanoid climbing stairs, running and hopping on one foot.
But, as is all too often the case with androids, finding anything useful for Asimo proved too difficult, so Honda scrapped the project in mid-2018 in favor of more useful humanoid robots.
Honda’s E2-DR, which has been in development since 2013, has a lot to live up to. Not only is it based on Asimo, but it is also trying to be more useful by helping disaster-relief efforts. This will be a tall task, of course.
We have not heard much about the E2-DR since it was unveiled in late 2017. Honda is typically hush-hush about these types of projects, but it is time for an update.
Agility Robotics Cassie
OK, we know. Cassie does not have arms yet. But Agility Robotics co-founders Damion Shelton, who delivered the opening keynote of the first Robotics Summit & Expo, and Jonathan Hurst are both on the record having said Cassie will eventually have arms to help manipulate the world. Perhaps 2019 is the year that happens.
According to Agility Robotics, Cassie is much more energy-efficient compared with other humanoid robots. In fact, Shelton has said Cassie “starts to approach the efficiency of a wheeled vehicle” partly because of its spring-mass behavior.
Agility Robotic’s legged locomotion expertise is built on years of academic research, including the bipedal robot ATRIAS that was developed at the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory at Oregon State University. Agility Robotics has often talked about last-mile delivery as a potential application for Cassie.