Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Jan 19. 2004

Monday, January 19, 2004
QURO in the voiceover studio – and on mars?
A report last week showed Sony’s QURO providing a voiceover for a new Astro-Boy cartoon. According to the story, the QURO “waddled into the recording studio” and spoke a few lines into the microphone. In one scene, an animation version of Qrio tells a story to a group of children and, the robot spoke in squeaky voice, “At last the young man fell under a spell. But he could not give up.”

More from the article:

At its debut as a voiceover actor, the robot earnestly displayed its array of talent. When asked to say the lines with more musical feeling, it started singing. When told to say them more quickly, he blurted the lines like a tongue-twister.

The article also pointed out the huge influence of Astro Boy on the Japanese take on robots. Created in the 1950s by Osamu Tezuka, it has cause several generations of Japanese to see robots as children rather than Terminators. The end result is huge – robotic research runs at a faster pace in Japan than the US. Accourding to the current television show director, Kazuya Konata:

“Our message is that robots are our partners…This has demonstrated that robots and human beings can work together.”

Now Sony (which produces the Astro Boy show) is mixing its real-life QURO robot with the fictional. The implication is that we are on the way to making the fantasy world of Astro Boy part of the real world.

Thinking about the capable QURO at the same time that NASA is guiding its simpler tele-operated robots on Mars made me wonder: how would the QURO fare on Mars? Its ability to walk and run implies that it might be more effective at covering more ground on the Red Planet than a slowly moving, wheeled golf-card robot which is what the NASA MER robots are. Would QURO work on Mars? Here are a few issues:

1. The temperature on Mars varies greatly between day and night. The Spirit MER rover measured daytime temperatures a few degrees below freezing, but nightime temperatures plunge to 120 degrees below zero Farenheit. According to NASA, this huge “temperature cycling” is why the Pathfinder rover finally stopped operating, and will also in time cause the MER rovers to fail.

I wonder about this. The Viking landers lasted several years in this environment. Do we build our space probes in a more fragile fashion these days?

In any case, it is a cinch that the current QURO doesn’t use the right lubrication to handle the huge temperature changes on Mars. To work there, it would be necessary to “harden” the system to withstand temperature changes, and use lubricants that could stand the temperatue cycling as well. The MER robots use small patches of radioisotope to keep certain critical areas warm during the Martian night. Presumably, the QURO could do the same.

2. Mars is covered in powdery dust, which has the consistency of flour and may carry a strong electrostatic charge. Such fine dust – comparable to the powder used to polish stones – might create serious problems for a robot with multiple joints. Presumably, the QURO is not sealed, so if one transplanted it to Mars its insides would become full of Martian dust in short order. In order to use such a system on Mars it would probably be necessary to completely seal the insides from the outside.

3. The MER rovers are solar powered, and peak power comes to about 700 watts during the middle of the day. In order for the QURO to work on Mars it would have to have a recharging station capable of delivering comparable results. This would restrict the QURO moving around – unless it dragged its recharging station around like a horse in a cart. Alternatively, the QURO would have to be nuclear-powered.

However, this does make me think of a use for a QURO-type robot with the existing Mars rovers – cleaning off the solar panels. According to NASA, dust from the Martian atmosphere slowly settles on the solar panels, reducing their efficiency. When I hear this, I wonder why NASA doesn’t put a little brush on a robot arm to clean the panels – or even have a little mobile QURO-style robot to dust it off.

It seems a strange example of mis-design, and I’ve never seen NASA address the issue. I have wondered if the RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool) carried by the MER rover might not be used to gently blow away the dust on the panels. If not, why not just put brush with an arm moving side to side? The lack of self-repair – which is what this amounts to – shows the differences in approach in US and Japanese robotics.

Aside from this, just imagine what a QURO or ASIMO hardened for the Martian environment might accomplish. One could land a probe with several of these humanoid robots, each carrying a particular tool. The dynamic balancing systems would allow them to cover ground rapidly, even if the way was rough and rocky. Imagine an ASIMO rock-climbing up to the mysterious gullies or even walking to the top of a hill to see the view. If a wheeled rover can cause excitement, imagine that caused by humanoid robot explorers.

I suspect that we won’t see QURO on Mars anytime soon. NASA already has plans to land a very large, SUV-sized, nuclear-powered rover on Mars at the end of the decade. Being large and nuclear powered the insides can be kept at constan temperatures, and the temperature extremes won’t put the system out of commission. It will be able to drive dozens, if not hundreds of miles over a period of years. I suspect that if Japan offered advanced humanoids as “piggyback” payloads NASA would reject them.

If so, the first place we will see humanoid robots in space may be on the Moon. The Chinese plan to go to the Moon during the next couple of decades, and already have a reasonably advanced humanoid robot (BH-1) that can execute tai chi moves. It seems quite possible, that, prior to sending people there will be a Chinese mission to the Moon’s poles including these robots. An additional advantage is that the relay time to the moon is short enough to allow partial control by earthbound operators. Mars is so far away that direct control is possible.

Even so, I’ll still dream of a cute littel QURO skipping across that red landscape…


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