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The History & Future of Humanoid Robots Research

Updated on April 3, 2011

A Collaboration Between Hanson Robotic (Einstein's expressive face) and Hubo's robotic body

The Honda ASIMO Robot (2000)
The Honda ASIMO Robot (2000)

Latest Research & Development in Humanoid Robots

The development of robotics especially that of humanoid robotics have accelerated rapidly over the last 10 years.

Humanoid robotics is a unique endeavor that require the synergistic integration between many different scientific & engineering fields. In fact, the humanoid robot has a social dimension and draws inspiration and know how from other less obvious areas like the entertainment industry (with its video games, books, movies & theme parks), the study of human psychology, artificial intelligence & more.

This hub page will focus on the pivotal & amazing robotics developments in the last 10 years from year 2001 to 2010. Its function and goal is to serve as a springboard for the cross pollination of ideas from disparate fields to inspire further developments of humanoid robots.

History of Humanoid Robots - What Came Before!

The first high profile humanoid robot that grabbed the publics attention was Honda's ASIMO robot. It demonstrated the state of the art in robotics research and development circa the year 2000. This spurred explosive developments from all over the world leading to rapid advancement in the engineering and control aspects of humanoid robotics. During the past decade the challenge of biped gait movement was tackled by many teams all over the world, each adding and building on subsequent breakthroughs.

Future of Humanoid Robots - What's Next?

In retrospect the mechanical engineering challenge was the "low hanging fruit". Looking to the future challenge of humanoid robots, the ultimate holy grail is a truly self contained and self aware Artificial Intelligence (AI) or more accurately Artificial Consciousness (AC), that is capable of taking control and articulating the mechanical construct of the humanoid robot.

The purpose of this page is to continously document the many approaches and breakthroughs on the road to achieving the scientific "holy grail" of the humanoid robot. Let's see where our curiosity and ingenuity will lead us.

The State of the Art in Biped Robot Locomotion

The approach to Biped robots movement is mainly based on two different approaches. The static approach usually limits the speed of the movement such that the lower momentum of the moves essentially means the biped is going through a series of static balanced poses. The dynamic approach which more closely mimics how humans move when running or jumping is at least an order of magnitude more challenging to implement. This dynamic balancing approach will be able top recover when a push when an external force, much like how we recover when someone pushes us.

Honda's Asimo Robot was unveiled in the year 2000. The name is an acronym for "Advanced Step in Innovative MObility". The current version not only walks and climbs stairs, but even runs at 3.7 mph (6 km/h).

Its not surprise that Honda's industry rival Toyota have also demonstrated it range of Partner robots that each demonstrates specific capability. A version of Toyota's Partner robot is reported to run at 7km/hr. Are we literally seeing a "robot race"?

One of the earlier promising example of a dynamic balancing biped movement was demonstrated in 2007 by a small company Anybots with its DEXTER robot. It was stated by the company as using machine reinforcement learning to learn how to walk. It was even able to jump and recover its balance.

Just recently we see two robots that contrast the two extremes in humanoid robot development of aesthetics and functionality. The HRP-4C robot is an aesthetically pleasing female robot that was able to mimic a life-like performance of dancing and singing. while NASA's Robonaut 2 was developed to operate in the harsh environment of outer space and other planetary environments.

The Honda ASIMO Robot

The Toyota PARTNER Robot

Different Approaches to Biped Locomotion

Although the basic walking motion of most biped humanoid robot's looks the same, the underlying method of locomotion and the algorithms that computes and directs the movement can be very different.

The method of locomotion can be largely divided between the use of electric motor actuators and hydraulic based systems. Of course there are also hybrid systems that leverage on the strengths of each method but these systems have the disadvantage of adding undue complexity essentially having the need to develop and trouble shoot two different system, ensuring that they can work in synch with each other. Based on current technology the hydraulic approach seems to be able to provide more power to the mechanical limbs especially when they are driven by a combustion engine.

The Dynamically Balancing "DEXTER" Biped Robot

Most robots in production now use multiple electric motors as actuators, one of the most promising and representative is Honda's ASIMO that debut in the year 2000. A good example of a well designed robot utilising hydraulic actuators is Boston Dynamic's "Big Dog", a dynamically stable quadruped robot. They also have a Biped robot called "PetMan" which seems to be using the same technology.

The approach to keeping the robotic bipeds upright and balanced can be based on static stable or the more useful but correspondingly more difficult dynamically stable approach. Most mechanical bipeds before 2006 were based on the static approach which limits the range and speed of possible movements. One of the earliest dynamically stable approach is by the company Anybots' DEXTER robot which demonstrated dynamic balancing & walking. DEXTER's dynamic walking can best be describe as a continuous "falling forward" and recovering its balance with every step.

"Big Dog" is a 4 Legged Robot can remain Dynamically Stable

Promising Methods of Robot Locomotion

The Passive Dynamic approach was developed in the late 1980s by Tad McGeer. It is based on Morphological Computations which enables the design of mechanical systems to accomplish control functions.

The advantage of this method is its high energy efficiency of its walking motion achieved through the use of Morphogical Computations in the mechanical design that drastically reduces the number and power of actuators required, while conserving momentum through a smooth and controlled "falling-forward" and "recovery" with each step.

Using the Specific Cost of Trasport (SCT) as a measure of the energy efficiency in level-ground transport. The SCT of the Cornel's Passive Dynamic Walker is 0.20 (same as for humans) compared to ASIMO's active approach of 3.23.

An interesting insight from Tad McGeer is the importance of the knee joint in Passive Dynamic walkers, to improve the conservation of momentum (which also improves the SCT) while providing more ground clearance for potentially larger range of walker motions.

Passive Dynamic Mechanical Walker by Tad McGeer

Latest Developments in Robotic Hand Technology

The research & development of a robotic hand that mimics the dexterity and fine control of the human hand is one of the holy grails of modern robotics research. Its development will benefit not only humanoid robots development but also the development of prosthetics limbs.

One of the most promising robotic hand in production is from the Shadow Robot company. It uses a set of about 20 innovative "air muscles" that contracts by more than 30% when activated by pressurized air. The force of the contraction is non-linear such that its magnitude decreases with the length of the air muscle. Checkout the videos of the Shadow robot hand and other leading robotic hands.

Shadow Robot's See how the Air Muscle Works

Educational Robotic Toys

OWI Robotic Arm Edge
OWI Robotic Arm Edge

Let your imagination be your guide with many projects for this robotic arm.


Different Approaches to the Robotic Hand

Most approach to robotic hands tries to mimic the design of the human hand. The human hand is just one example of a solution arrived at by nature through evolution of the human species. A simpler approach might be to focus on the underlying requirement which is the need for a universal gripper mechanism. 

An Innovative Vacuum based Universal Gripper

Robots in the Military & Harzardous Environments

Robots have been employed for some time now in various forms in the military. They also perform various hazardous functions like bomb disposal, search and rescue in tight spaces, and now there's even one the Robonaut 2 that's jointly developed by GM and NASA to help in space explorations. What will they think of next? 

GM and NASA's Robonaut 2 for Space Exploration

Boston Dynamics PETMAN a Dynamic Balancing Biped

Can Artificial Intelligence Enable Our Robots to be Street Smart?

One of the most difficult hurdles to achieving a truly autonomous humanoid robot is the artificial Intelligence aspects.

There are a variety of approaches to this, but most falls either into the more traditional rule based approach, the Reinforcement Learning (RL) approaches that enables learning from experiences, and the more organic approaches that tries to emulate the workings of the human brain.

One of the leaders in these fields are Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google and co-author of "Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach".

ASIMO's Learning AI

Interview with Peter Norvig

What is Artificial Consciousness?

One of the most interesting and potentially controversial approach to Artificial Intelligence is the attempt to create a self aware Artificial Intelligence, essentially an Artificial Consciousness.

One of the most well funded attempt has to be Professor Markram's 'Blue Brain' project, which proposes to simulate in its entirety the human brain down to the electrical and biological processes.

Henry Markram: Supercomputing the brain's secrets

The 'Brainbox' project from a team at the University of Manchester is also attempting to model a human mind by simplifying key elements of the brain to reduce the raw computation power required.

Want To Have Your Own Robot?

One of the positive spin-off effects from Robotics Research is to bring forth robot build kits to DIY your own customised robot or just buy robot related consumer products off the shelf.

LEGO's MINDSTORM NXT 2.0 is currently one of the most popular DIY robot kits. The range of accessories and information on robot kit is simply incredible. I'm sure many of our future robotics engineers will be inspired by NXT kit. Sometimes its just easier to buy and play around with it. Remember the AIBO dog from Sony? Here's my take on the most interesting robot related products that will amaze and inspire you.

DIY Your Own Biped Robot

David Hanson's pioneering work on Realistic Robot Expressions

Humanoid Robots in the Entertainment Industry

Robots have always been unique elements in our entertainment media of books, TV and Movies. Sometimes fact can be stranger than fiction and it is therefore important to be aware of the iconic robot movies that have shaped our collective psyche towards humanoid robots.

Robocop is one of the first movie to combine man and machine as a sort of cyborg in a believable futuristic story of a robot cyborg law enforcement officer. Of course then you need to contrast the righteous Robocop to the scary possible future of robots becoming the enemy of human in movies like "The Terminator" series.

Who can forget the sinister darken skies "The Matrix" series where the robots have actually won and have been enslaving humans for generations in a waking dream. 

The year 2010 have given us many first in humanoid robotics development geared towards the entertainment industry and is best embodied in the extremely life-like HRP-4C, a singing and dancing robot in the form of a Japanese girl.

The HRP-4C Dancing Robot from AIST

Humanoid Robots in the Medical Field

Surgeons are already doing surgeries through precision controlled robots. Its encouraging to see more instances of robots being used in the medical field.

For example in Japan, power assist robots are being test to help hospital staff move and provide care to elderly patients.

In the UK a remote controlled humanoid robot doll seems to be helping children with autism to learn how to interact with other children and their parents. Take a look at the video clip below to learn more about it. 

Robot Toys is No Child's Play

Robot toys are definitely becoming more capable and accessible to consumers.

It used to be that these small pint-sized humanoid robot are confined to research done in labs. But nowadays you can find them in many homes interacting in surprisingly ways with us.

The great thing is that most of these robotic kits allow extensive customization which enables them to do many unique & amazing stunts. See the videos below for some great examples of the surprising abilities of these human like robot kits.

The Isobot with its Cool Gadgets of "Bow & Arrows", "Machine Gun" and more

Bioloid with Dynamic Climbing capability

Learning from the Human Anatomy

The human walking and running gait cycle is a product of countless generations of evolution and may yet provide crucial insights and ideas for the development of truly efficient biped motion for the next generation humanoid robots.

Human Walking Gait Cycle

Human Running Gait Cycle

Muscle Activation during Gaiting Cycle

The Gap between Real & Artificial is Disappearing Fast

Instead of electric motors or hydraulic pistons, state of the art "Air Muscles" that more closely mimic the characteristics of our real muscles is now powering the next generation of humanoid robots. 

Air Muscle on an Articulated Robotic Leg and Feet

Cyborgs - Combining the Best of Ma and Machine

Technology is advancing so fast we are well on our way to achieving something close to what we saw in the iconic movie "Robocop". Examples of some of the latest developments are prosthetic limbs including artificial hands and feet and the coolest of all the Powered Mechanical Exoskeletons.

Powered Exeskeleton from SARCOS

Competitions & Prizes - The Smart Way to Evolving Humanoid Robots

One of the best way to ensure diversity of ideas and leverage on the benefits of massive parallel R&D is to have robot competitions. These range for robot soccer (the more challenging biped kind), challenges to transverse different obstacles, to the most entertaining robot fighting.

The Perfert Test for Smarts and Agility - Robot Fighting Compettition

The Social Dimension to Personal Robots

Cynthia Breazeal and her team from MIT are building personal robots with social Artificial Intelligence (AI) that learns through communicating with people just like how a human child will do.

In her interesting TED presentation she give insights in the rise of personal robots, as her team designs and create robots that play, learn and teach with other human beings. There's also a great demo footage of an innovative interactive game for kids.

Cynthia Breazeal's "Rise of Personal Robots" Presentation on TED

Here's a List of Resources that Inspired this Page

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3rd Edition)
Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3rd Edition)

A comprehensive "bible" on the range of modern approaches to AI. This should be a "must-read" foundation text for aspiring AI scientist & engineers.


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