Last week Honda announced new advanced functionality for its ASIMO android robot. Features include the ability to wirelessly communicate with other ASIMOs to coordinate on the accomplishment of tasks, recognize and yield to humans and return to a charging station to replenish batteries.
ASIMO North American Project Leader Rob Alen gave Design News more information on the robot’s new features.
Design News: What sets the ASIMO apart from other robots?
Rob Alen: The significance of ASIMO is that it is the only humanoid robot capable of maneuvering at human-like speeds in real-world environments. It is the only robot capable of climbing stairs, jumping in place or while turning and running. Running is an important capability as a robot with speed and nimbleness can move and react quickly without becoming unstable, such as when a moving object quickly enters its path. Advanced mobility is a key factor in ASIMO's future ability to be a useful helper to those who lack full mobility. ASIMO must be fully capable of effectively serving as another set of eyes, ears, arms and legs for those in need.
DN: What is the technology behind these advanced capabilities?
RA: In addition to servos, sensors, wireless communication and AI capabilities, ASIMO also incorporates cutting-edge internal data management functionality. In order for ASIMO to be able to react quickly enough to walk, run and function effectively in our world, it must almost instantaneously transfer data from a myriad of sensors and motors to sub-processor units and then onto a central processor unit. Then the results of the calculations from the CPU must be sent back out to the sub-processors and ultimately to the motors and sensors so even a single movement can be carried out. This process must happen continuously in order for ASIMO to remain upright and functioning. Honda utilizes a proprietary data management system to avoid data congestion or collisions that could either slow down data transfer or result in data corruption. ASIMO incorporates very specialized power management features to most efficiently utilize available power and to monitor power consumption. Likewise, ASIMO uses special heat management systems to keep components operating within acceptable parameters even under heavy computational or movement loads.
DN: What methods are used to coordinate ASIMO communication and how does an individual android determine when it needs assistance or recognize when another android needs help?
RA: Information regarding each ASIMO such as position and remaining battery level is shared through wireless communication. Each ASIMO sends information constantly to a PC, where information will be managed in real time. The PC determines the most appropriate ASIMO(s) to assign new task(s) based on the information received from each ASIMO regarding their position, work status and remaining battery level.
In the past, each ASIMO was performing tasks based on commands assigned to each unit. This time, multiple ASIMOs are networked and controlled in an integrated manner. As a result, coordinated operation of multiple ASIMOs became possible. Information regarding position, work status, and the remaining battery level of each ASIMO will be captured through the network. Each task will be assigned to the most appropriate ASIMO depending on the situation.
DN: How does an ASIMO determine the most efficient manner in which to perform tasks?
RA: When a command to perform a task is given, the newly developed system automatically determines whether multiple ASIMOs should work in coordination based on the given command. The ASIMO determined to participate in the coordinated operation will begin working together with other ASIMOs when it becomes available (when it is not in the process of recharging or when it is not performing other tasks).
DN: What is the level of human accompaniment?
RA: We need staff only for start-up operation (to let ASIMO stand up at the beginning), safety monitoring and shutting down in case of emergency.
DN: To avoid oncoming people, what sensors does an ASIMO use to determine a person’s movement and how does it predict future movements?
RA: With its eye camera, ASIMO has a field of view of 90 degrees for both its right and left sides. ASIMO can identify a person who holds an IC tele-interaction communication card regardless of where the person stands in a 360-degree range. The eye camera has not been changed from previous ASIMOs. The image processing software was modified to achieve higher definition for one part of the image so that ASIMO can identify people from a distance.
DN: How does it determine whether or not there is enough space for a passerby to fit?
RA: ASIMO will continue looking for a pathway it can take to avoid oncoming people/ASIMOs. If the ASIMO cannot find such a pathway, it will yield right-of-way to the oncoming party or stop and wait for them to pass.
DN: How does the ASIMO calculate or determine any of its dynamic environmental factors?
RA: If there is a distance of approximately 1.5 m or more between ASIMO and the oncoming person, ASIMO can sense most people regardless of height and ASIMO will sense small animals (such as dogs and cats) as moving objects.
DN: What happens if two ASIMOs are passing each other (rather than an ASIMO passing a person)?
RA: Determining which ASIMO is to yield the right-of-way depends on the situation of each ASIMO at that moment (relative positions, direction, speed). The logic of pathway formation will differ.
ASIMO will not back up. Each ASIMO has a map of the work area pre-registered, and thus two ASIMOs will not try to walk past each other on a pathway that does not have enough width. Rather, they take different routes to avoid each other. When unexpected obstacles such as people are on the pathway and there is not enough space, ASIMO will search around within the work area and avoid the oncoming people by efficiently yielding the right-of-way or by standing by.
DN: What is new about the ASIMO’s ability to autonomously charge?
RA: In the past, we had to take a cassette-type battery out of ASIMO and put it on top of a charger. With the newly developed charging station, ASIMO plugs itself into the charging station using a slot added to the backpack part of the body. At the charging station, ASIMO backs up so that the plug on the charging station will be inserted to the slot on the back of its body. In this way, ASIMO will recharge its battery while standing.
DN: What technology is required for an ASIMO to recharge?
RA: With regard to hardware, a slot for a charging plug was newly added to the back side of ASIMO’s body due to the new addition of the autonomous/automatic battery-charging function. With regard to software, to apply integrated control to multiple ASIMOs, a shared network server was added. A newly added program determines the most appropriate ASIMO to perform a task based on information sent from each ASIMO (position, work status, remaining battery level) and sends commands to the identified ASIMO.
DN: What is the schedule of charging for the android?
RA: ASIMO determines the need to recharge based on the situation with given tasks. If ASIMO is in the middle of performing a task, it will go get recharged after completing the task.
DN: What’s next for Honda and ASIMO? What are the next steps in development, either planned steps or long-term desired goals?
RA: Honda aims to introduce robots that can coexist with people in real-world environments. Therefore, sensing capability and image recognition technologies and an autonomous control are mainly developed.
In order to develop robots that can coexist with people, we think it is more important to further advance intelligence technologies. Therefore, we have been focusing our R&D efforts more on the area of intelligence technologies. Obviously, we will also continue advancing physical capability, which will enable ASIMO to perform its tasks in a wider range of environments. However, we do not have anything more specific to announce at this moment.
As for the direction of our efforts in intelligence technology development, we would like to improve ASIMO’s ability to perform a higher level role more quickly and without interruption. More precisely, we would like to:
Further increase ASIMO’s ability to perform tasks through the coordinated operation among multiple ASIMOs
Increase the types of tasks ASIMOs can perform
Increase ASIMO’s risk-avoidance capability to cope with unexpected situations (such as someone cutting right in front of ASIMO)
We would like to continue our development efforts to advance its functions so that it will be familiar and useful to people. It will take a while for the market for this type of robots to be formed. However, we believe that use of such robots will spread and grow when their value becomes clear due to technological innovations or when people’s expectations are exceeded (when desired functions are accomplished).
For more on the Honda ASIMO, listen to DN Editor-in-Chief John Dodge’s podcast with ASIMO project leader Stephen Keeney.