For decades it’s been an honor, and a life-changing accomplishment to compete in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. 140+ miles (230km+) of swimming, biking, and running – most who enter the race simply hope to finish. Now, the smallest contestant to ever attempt the race is ready…and it’s not even human. Evolta, designed by Tomotaka Takahashi of Robogarage, is a 15cm tall humanoid robot that runs on just a few AA rechargeable batteries. This October, three versions of Evolta will hope to finish the three legs of Ironman on the same course as the humans follow every year. Watch Evolta prepare in the videos below. Can a tiny robot conquer Ironman? …And what does it mean if it can?
For those who may be concerned for this cute little bot’s safety, please rest assured – this isn’t Evolta’s first rodeo. It’s crossed the Grand Canyon on a rope, run from Kyoto to Tokyo, and finished the Le Mans race as well. Ironman is the toughest challenge yet for Evolta, but as you’ll see in the following trailer for the event, the robot has the right stuff for the job.
While the official trailer is exciting, it doesn’t actually give you a good idea of how Evolta will move during the race. To that end, here’s an extended video from the recent press event that announced the challenge. It’s in both English and Japanese (there’s a bilingual host) and you can see the swimming version of Evolta at 2:20, the biking model at 8:36, and the running type at 9:00:
While Evolta will follow the official Ironman course it will do so in a way that makes its success fairly likely. Humans are only given 17 hours or so to finish the race and will compete in one large group on October 8th. Evolta will take a week (or less) starting October 23rd. Seeing as Evolta is only one-tenth the size of a human it makes sense for it to receive ten times the hours to finish. There will also be three versions of the bot, one for swimming, one for biking, and one for running. Each will be outfitted with equipment (such as a floating harness) to make the journey possible. The real challenge then is whether or not the robot can withstand the elements and run continuously for so long. Whenever Evolta isn’t charging its batteries, it will be racing with no breaks. Whether or not Evolta succeeds should come down to if has enough power and resilience in those little AAs.
Of course, that’s the whole point of the challenge. Panasonic hired Takahashi to create Evolta to promote their batteries of the same name. On sale October 21st, the latest evoltas AAs will be able to be recharged up to 1800 times. I’m almost certain that Evolta will succeed in finishing the Ironman because Panasonic wouldn’t be paying for all this just to see it fail.
But let’s ignore the PR side of things and ask what Evolta’s competition in this race really means. I think it’s another sign that the robotics industry is gathering energy for major innovations in the next few decades. Engineers like Takahashi are creating humanoid robots that, while severely limited when compared to droids depicted in science fiction, are capable of truly impressive physical feats. Takahashi specializes in cute, toy-like humanoids like Evolta, some of which we’ve reviewed before. Other scientists are teaching full scale robots to run, dance, and even play soccer. Taken together these and the thousands of other humanoid robot projects showcase the incredible efforts underway to bring personal robots out of fiction and into reality.
This fall, Evolta will run, swim, and bike the Ironman race with conditions highly stacked in its favor. Give it a few years, however, and similar machines will need far fewer concessions in order to finish. In a few decades these robots will probably even be able to challenge humans directly. That’s the real message behind Evolta’s entrance into Ironman. For now this is just about batteries, but one day soon it will be about actually competing against humans. Industrial robots already have us beat at manufacturing goods, Evolta’s offspring could eventually be better at sports as well.
Better win the race now while you still can.
[image credit: Panasonic]
[sources: Evolta, Panasonic]