Little Robots Make Big Gains

Who was that little, short guy who clanged the opening bell at the New York Stock exchange the other day? You know, the four-foot-tall dude who climbed the stairs to the podium, shook hands with stock exchange Chairman and CEO Richard Grasso and waved to the gathered throng. The only thing the little guy didn't do was blush with all the attention. So who was it? Not Billy Barty. Not Herve Villechaise. No, the four-foot gent was ASIMO, Honda Motor Corporation's idea of "the world's most advanced humanoid robot."

Though some might have reserved that honor for Keanu Reeves, ASIMO's appearance honoring the 25th anniversary of Honda's stock listing on the New York Stock Exchange was the culmination of more than 20 years of development by Honda. While some might wonder what robots have to do with building better cars, Honda Motor President and CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino described Honda's humanoid robotics program as consistent with its direction to enhance human mobility.

"Increasing mobility for our customers -- improving their quality of life -- remains the focus of Honda," said Yoshino. "With ASIMO, our dream for the future was to create something that did not exist -- an advanced humanoid robot capable of walking like humans and operating as a helper for people in areas where they live and work."

To create ASIMO, Honda engineers were challenged to apply the company's traditional focus on the customer to create something that could function in an actual human living environment. It was determined a robot should be easy to operate and small in size, enabling it to help people -- for instance, to look eye-to-eye with someone sitting in a chair.

Introduced to the world in November 2000, ASIMO's height of four feet is said to be ideal because its eyes are located at the same level as the eyes of a seated adult. The size also allows ASIMO to operate light switches, door knobs, work at tables and perform other useful activities. ASIMO's weight of 115 pounds might seem a bit hefty for a four-footer, but it's actually a 20 percent lower volume-to-weight ratio than its predecessor P3. Wish we could make that claim.

ASIMO's unique attributes include Honda's intelligent, real-time, flexible walking "i-WALK" technology which enables the robot to walk and turn smoothly and continuously. Earlier robots had to stop in order to make sharp turns. The new system also gives ASIMO greater stability in response to sudden movements.

Through "predicted movement control" ASIMO can predict its next movement in real time and shift its center of gravity in anticipation of a turn. Further, ASIMO's stride can be adjusted real time, allowing it to walk faster or slower without requiring stored walking patterns as with previous robots. And, unlike humans, ASIMO can be controlled by a portable controller -- resembling a typical video game controller -- whereas P3 was controlled only from a workstation. This permits more direct and flexible operation of ASIMO.

Considering that Honda's work in humanoid robotics is a major reason many young engineers join Honda, Yoshino said, "In my view, the challenge itself is enough reason to pursue this dream."

A Cleveland-based auto journalist, Luigi Fraschini has always wanted a robot that will work for him while he goes out driving.