The robot invasion continues: snowy slopes are no longer safe from robots. Bojan Nemec from the Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia recently presented his skiing robot at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). The robot won't be winning skiing records anytime soon and its usefulness as a ski instructor or in any other capacity seems quite a ways off. Nonetheless, the videos of this robot taking a ride down the ski slopes are well worth watching.
As the robot slides down the snowy mountain we can see an impressive ability to self balance, change direction, and autonomously sense and navigate around race gates. A gyroscope, four sensors mounted between the skis, and motor position sensors support the lower control of stability and joints. A simple USB camera and a GPS system allow the robot to gather the necessary input to determine its position and calculate what action it should take next. My favorite feature of the ski bot is that it uses normal off the shelf human skis - the robot does not need to cheat by using any sort of custom made ski. Check out the introduction video below:
Impressive as the skiing robot may be in many ways, clearly this robot is a far cry from gaining human respect on the slopes. The robot is unable to conquer anything more complex than a four gate course with an easy gradient and no major pitfalls in the way. Even in this simple scenario the robot was prone to crashing or even running away, as we can see comically in the following videos:
Jokes aside though, you have to start somewhere, and I gotta hand it to Nemec for creating an interesting robot. Even in a field as random as robotic skiing there is apparently competition in the field. Check out the extensive documentation from Shiro Shimizu (University of Fukui) where another skiing robot has been developed. As the DARPA grand challenge has shown us, with the right motivation and incentive, humans are capable of propelling robots to master incredible tasks such as driving cars autonomously. Luckily for us though, incentives are being directed elsewhere, and we now have wonders such as the Da Vinci surgical robot instead of world class robotic skiers.