NUDT’s prototype biped robot
Waseda University’s humanoid and bipedal walking robots seen at the Expo ’85 world fair in Tsukuba inspired researchers from the Chinese National University of Defense Technology to build one of their own. Having previously built an amphibious snake-like robot and some insect-like hexapods, a humanoid seemed like a suitable challenge. In 1987 the researchers had managed to get a simple bipedal robot to walk, and in 1989 they began work on the upper body. Finally on October 29th, 2000 they were ready to unveil the completed Xianxingzhe (先行者), which translates as “forerunner” or “pioneer”.
The final robot was able to walk at a rate of 2 steps per second, stood 140 cm (4’7″) tall, and weighed 20 kg (44 lbs). It was controlled by an embedded PC and had a total of 17 degrees of freedom (head x1, 2 arms x2, 2 legs x6) powered by 100W motors. The shoulder joint and elbow joint moved synchronously. The lights in its eyes would blink, it was able to walk, turn, ascend stairs and step over small obstacles measuring about 4 cm (1.5 inches). Interestingly the ears are actually speakers, not microphones! The researchers believed that this technology could find practical use in limb rehabilitation, or perform work in toxic or radioactive areas.
As the first walking humanoid robot built in China it was a major technological breakthrough for the country, but its gangly appearance and simple (some might say cute) smiley face made it an easy target.
The victim of unfortunate timing, it was revealed the same year as Honda’s ASIMO, prompting a Japanese website to make direct comparisons between the two. That Xianxingzhe was developed for a fraction of the cost made little difference to the average netizen, and the page satirizing the robot quickly grew in popularity. Because the robot was built by a university of “defense technology”, the page claimed the cylindrical motors in its hips were actually a secret weapon: a crotch cannon. A second page included humorous animated .gifs that showed how the robot would charge up its energy by rapidly squatting before letting loose a massive attack with a mighty pelvic thrust.
The web page that mocked the enthusiasm of the initial Chinese news reports may not have been entirely good-natured, but it helped transform Xianxingzhe into an unstoppable meme. Other Japanese sites were fond of the robot, collecting photographs and videos to better examine it. The lovable robot starred in homebrew video games, comics, and animations where it took on ASIMO and other robots in epic battles to the tune of fan-made theme songs. At the height of its popularity a plastic toy was produced with a variety of detachable weapons, including drill hands.
In 2002, the ROBO-ONE committee invited the Chinese researchers to bring their robot to Japan. Supposedly the robot couldn’t make the trip due to “state secrets”, but a few of the researchers did make a presentation with photo boards and video. While visiting Japan they met with researchers at Fujitsu’s robotics lab and with Prof. Takanishi at Waseda University. In the video, the robot introduced itself by saying:
“Hello, I’m a humanoid robot created by the National University of Defense Technology. My name is Pioneer, and I’m six years old. It is my wish to be loved by all, thank you.”
- Xianxingzhe presented at ROBO-ONE 2002 , (2), (3) (JP)
- “Senkousha” specifications page, (2), (3) (JP)
- Plastic model toy featuring “China Canon”, (2) (JP)
- Samurai Damashii satire page, (2) (JP)
Video (biped prototype):
Video (fan-made animation):
Video (game footage meme):
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