Have you ever looked at a Segway and said, "hey that looks cool, but I wish someone would make a version with fewer wheels"? No of course you haven't, no one has, but Honda made it anyway. Last Wednesday, Honda debuted the U3X, a motorized unicycle that self balances, can move in any direction, and lets you sit at eye level. Presented as the future of personal mobility, U3X allows a user to steer in any direction simply by leaning. Somehow I think I've heard this before. Check out the demo video and a brief demonstration give at a press conference after the break.
Part of what makes U3X possible is the work done on Honda's ground breaking ASIMO robot. The balance control that keeps the unicycle upright and allows users to steer through leaning was first developed to keep ASIMO from falling over. While Honda may want to sell the U3X as a revolution in travel, or as new omnidirectional movement technology, the real news here is Honda's ability to adapt the work done in ASIMO into other applications.
According to the press release on Business Wire, the U3-X is the world's first wheeled system that can move in any direction. Termed the Honda Omni-Traction (HOT) drive system, the large wheel is composed of smaller wheels in a perpendicular direction. When the big wheel moves U3-X goes forward or backwards. Small wheels control lateral motion. Add them together and you get omnidirectional movement. This is impressive, and it's the first such single-wheel system, but we've seen universal movement in other applications like ballbot, the remote controlled spherical robot, and even Rovio. The U3-X wheel is cool, but it's first only by a technicality.
U3-X is set to make a splash at the 41st Tokyo Motor Show. After all, it's a means of transport that only weighs 10kg and can operate for an hour between charges. Again, that's pretty cool, but I doubt Honda is serious about mass producing these unicycles. First, Segway has been after the personal mobility market for years and, while successful, the scooters aren't exactly clogging our city streets. Second, I think the real demonstration here is not the U3-X but the ASIMO technology. Honda can show that the millions of dollars spent on ASIMO is not only going to yield dividends in the world of robotics, it will be applicable to many other fields as well.
Which is an important and often overlooked benefit from developing robots. The mechanical, electrical, and IT systems that are tested there can be translated into many other fields. Some applications will be as curious as a motorized unicycle, but we could easily see walkers that help the elderly navigate rough terrain, prosthetics that are more precise, or cars that travel in any direction. All thanks to robots like Asimo.
[photo credit: Honda]