It’s the perennial debate: R2-D2 versus C-3PO, Astromech versus Protocol Droid, utility versus usability, function versus form. When the maker movement took off 10 years ago, a bottom-up, keep-it-super-simple approach to amateur robotics made more sense, especially from a cost perspective. But now, thanks to cheaper, smaller control systems and access to sophisticated technologies like 3D printing and networkable servos, more makers are starting to tackle much more complex, fussier, high-end robotics projects like androids, gynoids, and anthropomorphic arms. Here are just a handful of the most exciting developments in the world of anthrobotics — whether military, commercial, or maker-made.
In Our Own Image
This towering 6-foot biped is the latest from Boston Dynamics, makers of such frighteningly biomorphic bots as BigDog and Cheetah. With the introduction of Atlas, the Massachusetts-based military contractor lumbers a few steps closer to Terminator-style weaponized androids. Atlas has 28 hydraulic-actuated degrees of freedom, plus fully articulated hands to allow not just the lifting and carrying of objects, but the use of tools designed for humans. It can even climb with its hands and feet. Currently, Atlas is powered by a cable to an external supply. No word on when it’s going to be upgraded to onboard power.
It's hard to believe that ASIMO, Honda's spokesbot, is over 14 years olds. Introduced in 2000, ASIMO has become a robotic ambassador to the future, appearing in car commercials, working the convention circuit, dancing on Ellen, and ringing the opening bell on Wall Street. Although Honda doesn't bother to make this clear, the bot is not actually autonomous. It is remote controlled (off-camera) and it can also execute pre-programmed routines, such as step-walking. It's still an impressive system, with 34 DoF, at over 4' tall, 119 lbs, and with a 51.8V Li-Ion battery backpack (for about an hour of operation).
The Open Hand Project
This volunteer-driven, open-source initiative works to develop a 3D-printable robotic hand that can be used either on robots or on human amputees. By crowdsourcing development, using desktop 3D printing and other accessible maker technologies, indie U.K. robotics developer Joel Gibbard hopes to reduce the cost of a prosthetic hand from $100,000 to $1,000.
The Poppy Platform
This 33"-tall open-source humanoid platform is under development by Flowers Lab in Bordeaux, France. Designed for experiments in bipedal locomotion and other science, art, and education applications, Poppy uses strong, lightweight 3D-printed structural components. Twenty-five Robotis Dynamixel networkable servos are controlled by PyPot, a custom Python framework developed for the project. The unique inward bend of Poppy’s hips (mimicking human hips) greatly improves the bot’s walking efficiency. Given the high cost of Dynamixel servos, Poppy costs around $10,000 to build — but whoever said humanoid minions come cheap?
Murata Boy & Murata Girl
This 20" (50cm) bike-riding robot is a kind of mascot for Japanese electronics component company Murata. The doll-sized device can balance, pedal forwards and back, and avoid obstacles. Balance is achieved through three gyros, including one controlling a flywheel in the robot’s chest. A Bluetooth-connected gestural wand directs the robot’s movements. His younger cousin, Murata Girl, rides a unicycle.
Launched in 2012 by French model maker and sculptor Gael Langevin, InMoov is an ambitious and inspiring project to create an open-source 3D-printable humanoid. On his site, Langevin hosts all the files you need to download and print your own mini-humanoid — at least (so far) the torso, arms, and head. The project has attracted an international community of builders and programmers intent on developing and refining the remaining parts of the robot.
MechaTE Robot Hand
With this design, Custom Entertainment Solutions took what they'd learned in working in Hollywood animatronics and developed a light-use hand for science/tech research, education, and entertainment applications. The $900 hand is constructed of anodized aircraft aluminum, can be controlled by any PWM servo controller, microcontroller, or RC system, and offers five degrees of freedom (four fingers and thumb open/close) for 14 points of motion.
NASA's loveable robo-torso was the first humanoid (upper body) in space. Created by the Dextrous Robotics Laboratory at Johnson Space Center, Robonaut has been 15 years in the making and was finally sent up to the International Space Station in 2011. As of this writing, R2 waits patiently for his climbing legs to be delivered by the SpaceX resupply ship. This teleoperated robotic astronaut will work alongside crewmembers doing maintenance tasks and assisting on space walks.
The Shadow Dexterous Hand
Designed to mimic the human hand as closely as possible, the Shadow Dexterous has 20 actuated degrees of freedom and four actuated movements for a total of 24 joints. Each joint has a range of motion similar to that of a human hand. The system uses embedded PIC microcontrollers and PSoCs (Programmable Systems-on-Chips) in the hand itself for embedded control and pressure-sensing, plus EtherCAT protocol for overall control via a connected PC. At $120,000, you may have to black-market one of your biological hands to pay for one of these.
Justin and Rollin' Justin
This teleoperated humanoid/wheeled hybrid platform offers all the benefits of an anthropomorphic upper body without the challenges and hassles of bipedal stabilization and walking. The bot was developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) at The Robotics and Mechatronics Center in Bavaria. The “Justin” upper half was designed as a spacebot that can be remotely operated from Earth for applications like satellite repair and space station maintenance. The “Rollin’” configuration was intended for more down-to-Earth domestic chores.
The JACO Arm
The JACO Lightweight Robotic Arm is a beautifully designed six-axis manipulator with a three-fingered hand. Created by Canadian company Kinova, JACO is named after co-founder Charles Deguire’s uncle Jacques, who built robotic arms in the ’80s to help overcome his own muscular dystrophy. The carbon fiber-housed arm offers six degrees of freedom and can handle a maximum payload of 1.5kg. The arm’s API is accessible via USB 2.0. This level of sophistication comes at a price. The JACO sells for a wallet-squeezing $48,400.
DLR’s TOrque-controlled humanoid RObot is the product of lessons learned developing the anthropomorphic “Justin” torso, combined with bipedal legbots the German company has also been developing since 2009. TORO incorporates torque sensors in its leg joints to read and react to pressure and impact, giving a more robust and dynamic walking locomotion. TORO also has remarkably small feet (enabled by the advanced leg tech), allowing it to climb obstacles other robots can’t manage
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This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 39, on pages 34–37.
Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.