NSK, a Japanese manufacturer of robot-related parts including ball bearings, has announced that they are developing a quadrupedal robot that could serve as a guide dog for the blind. The first prototype, NR001, had been completed in 2005 by a small team of engineers who had graduated from the University of Electro-Communications. Now, they’re working closely with the UEC to improve the current prototype.
In 2007 the 2nd prototype (NR002) was revealed, which was able to recognize stairs without the need for special markers and change its posture to successfully move up and down each step. At that time, three of the four legs had to remain in contact with the ground to support the body. Each leg had 4 degrees of freedom and a wheel on each foot so that on flat terrain it could roll rather than walk (at speeds up to 3.7 kph). Even when rolling on its wheels, it could easily change direction by swiveling its legs.
In late October NSK unveiled the third prototype, which uses a Microsoft Kinect sensor to detect stairs and other obstacles. The legs have been redesigned to move almost as quickly as a person up and down stairs, as opposed to the earlier crab-like configuration which was much slower. Additionally, they’ve begun to add other features, such as voice recognition, so that the robot can be easily commanded to start, stop, and move up and down the stairs. Other changes include a longer leash, and each foot now has a bumper sensor to avoid crashing into things.
Clearly, it’s going to be pretty difficult to improve upon an actual guide dog, but there area number of potential advantages. For example, a robot equipped with GPS and google maps could give you directions on your way to a destination, while also providing instructions such as when to stop. While the primary purpose of the project is to improve people’s daily lives, the company believes they can leverage the technology for other industries. In the future they plan to increase its safety, add self-localization, use better sensors, and work with sensor networks, aiming to commercialize the robot by 2020.