Published on June 20th,2013 at 12:23 AM
By >RENO J. TIBKE

Japanese Robots: Honda’s High-Access Survey Robot Goes to Work in Fukushima. Finally Some Action for (parts of) ASIMO!

Honda's ASIMO-based Fukushima-bot

The first signs of trouble at Fukushima were quickly followed by expectations of an action-ready ASIMO leaping to the rescue. Honda’s humanoid remains far from able, but their new High-Access Survey Robot is on the job, and of some consolation: it’s got ASIMO parts.

• • •

After more than two years of research and development, in collaboration with Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) and with input and direction from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Honda has finally made good on its commitment to assist with recovery and repair at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.


High-Access Survey Robot is as High-Access Survey Robot Does
High-Access Survey” isn’t super creative in the naming department, but it really does nail what this technically two-piece robot is all about: 1. movement via tracked chassis with a variable-height platform allowing operators to peer into hard to see, difficult to access places up to 23ft/7m high (that’s AIST’s tech); 2. providing a comprehensive visual survey from the camera-equipped arm and automatic 3D mapping of the robot’s immediate location (thanks, ASIMO!); 3. a new control system that increases dexterity by allowing operators to manipulate several robotic joints at once (more ASIMO-tech); and 4. shock-resistant arms, e.g., within a reasonable range, the robot’s arms will remain steady and on-task even when other parts or the entire machine gets jostled around (that’s the big present from ASIMO, detailed below).

The robot’s advancements and benefits are pretty clear:
AIST’s sturdy, low center of gravity, tracked base keeps things moving over potentially rough terrain, and when the arm platform is fully extended it’s probably the tallest stand-alone robot out there (at least among robots that actually like, you know, do stuff).

The first two gifts from ASIMO are visually subtle, but operationally quite significant. Performing extremely important jobs through a single camera lens is the status quo drudgery for current recovery & repair robotics, so this system’s 3D view of the robot’s surroundings combined with increased dexterity are welcome enhancements (presumably, a number of different tools could make their way onto the business end of Honda’s arm). The last gift from ASIMO, the gift of stability, well there’s a bit of history to all that, and we’ll get to it below – first, here’s how the job will be done:


So there you go – it’s certainly an achievement, and along with several other machines already at work or heading to Fukushima (see: Japan’s Robot Renaissance: Fukushima’s Silver Lining), Honda’s new robot is a unique and valuable contribution to the recovery & repair effort. Okay – great, happy day!

But wait…
So, Honda’s very highly accomplished robotics division (our coverage: Honda Robots for the HomeHonda Robots You Wear) has spent two years at this? Even casual tech observers know that we’ve had durable, effective crawler robots with cameras and nimble, powerful arms for well over a decade (see: iRobot), and those with a slightly higher level of robo-geekery know Honda’s been working on bipedal humanoid robots for almost 30 years.

Honda’s résumé reasonably amplifies everyone’s expectations; as such, both when things went bad at Fukushima, and even NOW, it’s not unreasonable to wonder why they’ve reinvented the tracked robot wheel, so to speak, and why there are still no practical, deployable results from all the time, money, and brains put into ASIMO. Can’t that robot at least do… something!?

Presents from ASIMO: the Humanoid has Indeed Contributed
ASIMO is often billed as the world’s most advanced humanoid robot (that’s recently become debatable), and it does have some autonomous capabilities, but what’s brought to the public eye is largely choreographed to a specific environment. The very robo-dorky among us knew it was entirely unreasonable to expect anything of ASIMO as a stand alone robot, but we did know that ASIMO is and has always been a research platform with wild potential. Honda, openly apologetic and conciliatory of its inability to immediately assist with Fukushima recovery & repair, got straight to work:


(see the derived-from-ASIMO self-steadying arm/leg tech in action, jump to 14:50 in this NHK documentary)

The self-steadying, self-balancing arm Honda engineers created, obviously, is the predecessor to the limb mounted on the new High-Access Survey Robot. So the work kinda paid off. The prototype provided design cues, inspiration, and data – and then was put away in Honda’s warehouse of lost robotic toys or whatever.

Or was it? Now, speculation is at best speculative, but what if maybe, maybe that arm isn’t on a shelf somewhere? What if, big if, but what if there’s also a body… and it’s not ASIMO?

Because Fool Honda Once, Shame on You…
Naively, but with hope inspired by Honda’s technological achievements, the world called for ASIMO to help at Fukushima, but Honda could do nothing. Now, pressure is building from the very exciting, fueled by international competition for prizes and prestige, Fukushima-inspired DARPA Robotics Challenge (our coverage). And, looming off in the future is the possibility that Japan’s best robots might once again get upstaged by something from the U.S., or Korea, Poland, Germany, etc. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also a ton of motivation.

Honda engineers extracted a polished, self-steadying/balancing arm from ASIMO’s leg in 8 months. In the 18 since, would they really have only managed to attach some eyes and bolt it to a crawler with a really long neck?

Akihabara News’ robotics coverage will keep you hip to developments – and you’ll wanna stay tuned in – because unless Honda’s hoping to get fooled again, it’s both safe to assume they’ve remained busy, and safe to assume that the image below is more than just a rendering; it might be something awesome.


• • •

Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.

VIA: IT Media (Japanese/日本語); Honda Robotics (Japanese/日本語)
Images: Honda Robotics; NHK

              
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