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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 47 - January 2006   
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ROBOTICS
Title  The little prince of R&D

Asimo (1) is as white as snow. A cross between a miniature cosmonaut and a giant toy, he stands 1.20 metres tall, walks at a leisurely 3 kilometres an hour, runs, dances, avoids obstacles, goes to a particular place when you tell him to, and responds to a greeting. He recognises certain people and answers to his name. Doing his bit for science education by turning up at various scientific events, Asimo was special guest at the CER conference, held in Brussels last November.

Asimo presented by Philippe Busquin at the opening of the CER conference organised by the Research DG – Brussels, November 2005 © Olivier Polet
Asimo presented by Philippe Busquin at the opening of the CER conference organised by the Research DG – Brussels, November 2005
© Olivier Polet
Asimo runs with small regular strides, changes direction, and can even take a few dance steps. Simple as his movements may seem, they are the result of several years of patient efforts at Honda’s Fundamental Technical Research Centre in Japan, supported, in the later stages, by teams from its Research and Development Centre for the European Market, in Offenbach (DE).

Asimo’s ancestor appeared in 1986. Known as EO, it consisted of just a pair of legs, with no body. But it was able to place one foot in front of the other in a straight line, with intervals of about five seconds between each step. To improve his performance, researchers made a close study of the walking mechanisms and joints in bipeds (man and primates). Six robots (E1 to E6) then followed between 1987 and 1993, displaying a growing mastery of movements over level terrain – reaching a walking speed of 1.2km/hr – and even walking up slopes. These humanoids then improved their dexterity (1993-1997), learning how to reach for a light switch, turn on a computer, open a door, pick up and carry objects, go up and down stairs and push a cart.

Asimo, whose development began in 1999, marked an important new stage. Measuring 1.20 metres tall, he can ‘communicate’ with humans, look them in the eyes, walk alongside them and reach the objects they use in their everyday lives. Equipped with sensors, he is able to gauge distances and adapt his movements accordingly. He can stop to avoid an obstacle or sidestep a fixed object and change direction while moving, without having to stop, turn around and then start up again. He can recognise certain faces and can understand certain gestures – he even recognises and responds to a wave. He can also hear and recognise his name, turn in the direction it comes from, and can identify certain other noises, such as of objects falling or colliding. If you push him, he regains his balance and if you offer him an object he will take it as well as shake an outstretched hand. His backpack holds a computer packed with software while his visual sensors are housed in his ‘head’ and his strength (kinesthetic) sensors are attached to his ‘wrists’.

"We want to stress that he represents a research project, he is not a toy,” explains William de Braekeleer, spokesman for Honda Motor Europe. “When we present him we show a five-minute film that traces the history of robotics by explaining the many difficulties we faced in developing Asimo. Even so, he is obviously much less able than his Star Trek colleagues.“ 

But this is just the beginning. In ten or 15 years’ time, Asimo could become an ‘intelligent’ assistant in our everyday lives, carrying out household chores, going to look for specific objects (such as a medicine in a particular cupboard, a drink in the fridge), as well as suggesting leisure activities for the weekend in line with our interests – a walk, a concert, a new book – by selecting the information on the internet and then communicating it via a printer or orally. 

In the meantime, Asimo is making himself known at many scientific and technological events and is proving to be a valuable teaching aid. “We started by presenting him at European science museums where the children were very enthusiastic. We like to think that these children go home with their heads full of dreams and ideas and that in this way Asimo can contribute to something more constructive, such as the desire to study science.”  

The first educational pilot project was launched in the United Kingdom, at the Hawkley Hill High School. “It came about rather by chance, due to the enthusiasm of headmaster Roy Halford and the teaching staff with whom we carefully prepared the teaching programme. Asimo spent just one day at the school, but he made a lasting impression. This type of experience should be repeated in other countries.”(2)

(1) Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility
(2) Impatient teachers can download documents, in English, developed for pupils at different levels (technical information, technology brochure, classroom questions, learning experiences), from the Honda US site


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