Show me two robots that look like they can fit together and I start having fantasies about real world versions of Voltron. Such was the case when I saw Rollin' Justin and the DLR-Biped. Rollin' Justin is a humanoid upper body on a set of wheels with dynamic suspension. The Biped robot is a humanoid lower body that walks with ease. Both were created by the Mechatronics division of the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR), the German aerospace center. The DLR used previously created arms and hands as the basis for each robot. This allowed them to construct the Biped in just 10 months. Check out the Rollin' Justin and Biped in action in the videos below. Perhaps together they could form a mighty defender of the galaxy!
Sometimes it seems like every robot researcher is doing the exact same work. Replace Rollin' Justin's metallic blue skin for a mild grey and it could be a Nextage from Kawada, a PR2 from Willow Garage, a Motoman SD-10 - the list goes on and on. Upper body humanoid robots appear very similar on the surface. Likewise with walking legs. DLR's Biped could be mistaken for Boston Dynamics' Petman, or even Anybot's Dexter (though the walking technology is much different in the latter). Seeing these robots day in and day out, sometimes it takes a while to spot what makes each one different. For Rollin' Justin it's the amazing coordination between it's spring dampened wheels and its arms. See Justin's skills below at 0:38.
For DLR's Biped, the distinguishing feature may not be the bot's performance, but it's construction. The upper part of each leg is actually a re-purposed lightweight arm that DLR had previously developed. (The lower part of each leg was created especially for the Biped.) As I mentioned above, taking that shortcut allowed DLR to develop the walking Biped in just 10 months. That's pretty fast, as I'm sure the engineers behind other walking robots would attest to. And DLR's work isn't shoddy by any means, the Biped performs very well. Its steps are even more remarkable when considering that its feet are 10cm across - pretty small for a full sized 50 kg (110 lb) robot.
Both robots also have some impressive use of visual cues. Rollin' Justin can autonomously locate objects in its field of vision (0:45) and has the acuity to avoid colliding objects as it performs manual tasks with its hands - something we have seen with the PR2, but not with many other bots of its kind. The Biped video doesn't have sound, so it may be hard to understand, but it can receive commands based on gestures (1:37). Both accomplishments highlight how DLR is progressing towards placing robots in human environments.
Technically the Biped was only developed to study walking motion, but I still have my dreams that it and the Rollin' Justin will team up and form a complete humanoid robot. The truth is that even though we have Asimo and other full sized humanoids being developed all around the world, we could still use more people tackling the problem. It will take a vast collection of robotics research (even more than what we currently have underway) to create a bot that can safely and effectively work in human environments. Every separate development in that direction is an important step forward, though of course it would be better if all the research could be shared openly through libraries like ROS. In any case, DLR looks primed to continue its exploration of world-class humanoid robots. Maybe, just maybe, they'll consider my Voltron idea and start combining Justin and Biped together. It would be amazing looking...and I know the perfect person to pilot such a bot.
[image credits: DLR]