MAKE at RoboGames: A Discussion with Lem Fugitt about Humanoids

3D Printing & Imaging Robotics
MAKE at RoboGames: A Discussion with Lem Fugitt about Humanoids

The Nao Robot.

Humanoid robot competition is one part of RoboGames that seems to be dominated by Japanese roboticists. Lem Fugitt, who runs Robots Dreams, has been involved with the humanoid robot scene in Japan for nine years, and tends to bring a few “professional” Robo-One players with him on his annual trip to RoboGames. We spoke with him about how he got involved in the Robo-One scene and how 3D Printing has started to benefit the builders.

What got you into robotics?
I always wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, as many did; I remember going out to a field with my father and watching in awe as Sputnik flew over. Then I got into short wave radios and computers, which eventually led to robotics, many years later. In the early 2000’s, after looking for a new way to express myself, I got back into electronics. I eventually ended up at a Robo-One event and saw people sitting right near the ring, in the front row, with press passes. I wanted to sit that close too, so I started a technology blog to write about things like PDAs and other neat things from that time. I then got to sit up close at the robotics events, bought a kit for myself, and immediately fell deep into the hobby and started competing. Living in Japan and having easy access to places like Akihabara and Tokyo Hackerspace didn’t hurt, and the language barrier was never much of an issue since we all spoke robot.

How long did you compete in Robo-One for? Why did you stop?
I actually only competed in smaller regional competitions, but did that for about 3 years. I stopped because of the time required. It got so popular so quickly that if you really want to compete and not just play around, you have to be serious about it. That part wasn’t really for me–I enjoy competing and the robots themselves, but I prefer telling interesting stories.

You have a blog about 3D Printing (3D Printing Dreams) as well. How did that come about?
Well, each year after I visit California for RoboGames, I head East to visit my cousin, who lives in New York. A few years ago, before MakerBot grew to what it is today, I visited NYCResistor (where MakerBot got their start) and met Bre. I loved the technology and thought it had a lot of potential, but didn’t want to bring one back to Japan since no one else had them out there at the time, meaning it would be hard to support it if I had any issues. I did start following the industry after that, though, and eventually bought a machine for myself. Of course, with the way the industry’s grown recently, there are many printer owners in Japan and it’s easy to find replacement parts for my printers if I need them.

Is 3D Printing starting to become more prevalent in the humanoid robotics world?
Yes! People like Michael Overstreet have played a big role in that. A small number of competitors started using 3D Printing to create custom parts for their bots a few years ago but many of them didn’t start implementing printed parts into their designs until recently. We’re at a good point now, where the machines are reliable enough to predict their results, so you know what you’re going to get and how the parts will work in your robot.

Of course, as in the US, you have different communities of printer owners in Japan. You have those who want to take the machine out of the box and print with it right away, and then you have those that are pleased by the challenge of tweaking, improving, and modifying a kit.

Michael Overstreet’s 3D Printed DARwIn-OP, featured in Volume 34.

How serious is Robo-One competition? Does anyone make a living off competing?

Nobody does it full time. Many of them have engineering jobs, doing things like designing wind generators or large valves. One competitor even owns a small ramen truck, which he automated the whole inside of to clean dishes and perform other tasks. It is pretty serious, likely because there are clear benefits to participating in robot competitions in Japan as opposed to here in the US.

For one, the total land space of Japan is about the size of California, so there are competitions and practices two or three times a month that many of the competitors can easily attend. Another benefit of competing in Robo-One is the continuity between individuals and teams–here in the US, robotics teams (especially those from schools) often stay together for a year before handing the reigns over to a different group of builders. That’s not really the best way to keep the knowledge base up, since those with experience leave after a year. Many of the Robo-One participants have been building and competing together for years, so the technology and skill is constantly improving as they share ideas and learn from each other.

One downside to Robo-One competition is the investment required, which is pretty steep – the high torque needed to control the movements of each robot precisely and quickly means that each servo can end up costing hundreds of dollars. You’ll often find five servos in each leg alone, so it can add up quickly. The movements themselves are all programmed in and then activated by the user with a remote, so it’s a lot like puppeteering, in a way.

In your experience, how do the Japanese and American mindsets compare when it comes to robot competition?

The difference between robot combat and humanoid competitions is a great way to explain this: Combat robotics happened early on, and caught the attention of a few Japanese roboticists. Despite enjoying it immensely, they couldn’t figure out how to bring it back to Japan – it just wouldn’t go over very well there. The whole crashing, smashing, and destroying of the creation you put hours of work and thousands of dollars into seemed strange. But, this was right around the time Asimo came out, and the Japanese fans of combat robotics realized that they could do something similar and have a competition around humanoids. A few fans got into building early humanoid robots, and wound up with sponsors like Kondo, who could provide them with servos.

It was still an investment, but this way it wasn’t wasteful. The Japanese mindset is perfect for humanoid robotics – they get a kit and can enjoy it in four ways: The first is building the kit. The second is modifying and improving the kit. The third is taking photos and making memories with their build, and the fourth happens during competition, when a community is created around it. While the American mindset seems to be “buy it, build it, and it’s done!”, in Japan, getting a kit and finding that it doesn’t work is almost a blessing, since that’s another opportunity to modify the build. Putting all that time into something that gets destroyed just doesn’t make sense.

Here’s a slideshow of a few of the Humanoids we saw yesterday:

Follow Lem, Michael and I on twitter for live updates of the action throughout the day, and make sure to check out Robots Dreams for a few follow-up posts.

MAKE Volume 34: Join the robot uprising! As MAKE's Volume 34 makes clear, there’s never been a better time to delve into robotics, whether you’re a tinkerer or a more serious explorer. With the powerful tools and expertise now available, the next great leap in robot evolution is just as likely to come from your garage as a research lab. The current issue of MAKE will get you started. Explore robot prototyping systems, ride along with the inventors of the OpenROV submersible, and learn how you can 3D-print your own cutting-edge humanoid robot for half the price. Plus, build a coffee-can Arduino robot, a lip balm linear actuator, a smartphone servo controller, and much more

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Eric is a Mechanical Engineer with interests in machining, mass manufacturing, product design and kinetic art. While not building things, he enjoys skiing, cycling, and juggling.

View more articles by Eric Weinhoffer