Rolling Justin Catches Balls
Rollin' Justin makes this two handed catch seem easy. Try it with your friends...it's not.

There's a special place in a nerd's heart for a robot that can beat jocks at sports and fetch us a cup of coffee at the same time. Needless to say, Rollin' Justin is filling my ventricles with joy. Created by DLR, the German aerospace center, Rollin' Justin is a two-armed humanoid on a wheeled base that looks pretty flashy in its bright blue metallic skin. But Rollin' Justin is more than just a slick exterior, DLR is teaching it how to be a top of the line athlete and barista too. Watch the badass blue bot perform a series of quick barehanded catches in the video below. Don't miss the double barehanded catch at 1:27. The clip also highlights how Rollin' Justin's visual and tactile sensors are sophisticated enough to allow it to make and serve coffee. Simply incredible. It suddenly seems that robot athletes and manservants are much closer than I thought.

Justin should be the envy of many engineers when it is discussed at ICRA 2011 next week. Its accomplishments will be presented in a paper titled: Catching Flying Balls and Preparing Coffee: Humanoid Rollin’Justin Performs Dynamic and Sensitive Tasks. With such highly contrasting tasks, DLR is showing that Rollin' Justin is capable of both high speed movements as well as fine-tuned precise control. The robot, and its creators, deserve some major accolades for performing so well over a wide dynamic range. It's important to point out, however, that much of Rollin' Justin's brains for these tasks were outside its body. In order to calculate trajectories and make necessary minuscule adjustments, an external processing server had to be used that communicated with Justin at high speed. Given another few rounds of Moore's law, we'll probably be able to put these systems directly in the robot itself, but for now, Rollin' Justin's success has a small asterix next to it.

That's fine by me because those catches are just so phenomenal I don't really care if Rollin' Justin needed an external coach to help it. When an organization like RoboCup claims it will have human-level synthetic athletes by 2050, it's hard to know if they're being overly optimistic or not. Performances like this, however, show that maybe RoboCup was being a little pessimistic. Many of my human friends can't do a double barehanded catch (you know who you are), but Rollin' Justin is already there and bound to get better as computational power improves. It's also possible the rolling robot will be fitted with matching legs sometime in the near future. There are still many obstacles to getting robots to perform well on the sports field or the cafe, but if we keep seeing improvements like these I'm sure we'll clear those obstacles with plenty of height to spare.

[screen capture and video credits: DLR via Hizook]
[source: Baeuml et al to be presented at ICRA 2011, DLR]