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Dreams Come True: Real Mecha Debuts At Wonder Fest 2012

The Kuratas mecha (aka Vaudeville), an outrageous art project by Suidobashi Heavy Industry, made its official public debut at Wonder Fest 2012 this weekend.  Built by iron worker and artist Kogoro Kurata (right, above photo), Kuratas stands 3.8 meters (12 ft 5 inches) tall and weighs 4,500 kg (9920 lbs).

Kurata has some experience building giant robots, having previously created a statue based on the Scopedog mecha from the anime Votoms.  He was also involved with JFE’s project to build a life-sized statue of Tetsujin 28-go (Gigantor), but had to quit the project due to various circumstances.

In January 2010 he built a vehicle for Castrol Japan that could kick a soccer ball at 200 kph (see here).  It wasn’t long after that that he got the idea to build a real robot that could be driven by a human passenger, and by September 2011 had built much of the main chassis.

Videos: Justin Dances, NAO Descends A Ramp, & MIT’s Cheetah Runs

The researchers at the German Aerospace Center love their robot Justin so much they even spend some of their free time playing with it.  Take this video, for example, of Justin performing the iconic dance moves seen in the diner scene from Pulp Fiction.  Now if they would just connect Justin’s torso to that pair of legs they’re working on…


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[source: Bram Vanderborght @ YouTube]

Android Baby “Affetto” Gets Its Upper Body

Having previously developed several baby robots, the researchers at Osaka University’s Asada Lab are using that know-how to build the most realistic infant robot ever made.   It has been about a year and a half since we saw Affetto, which was just a head capable of making a few expressions.  Now the researchers have published a video showing the robot’s new upper-body, which contains 20 pneumatic actuators to move its arms, neck, and spine.  This is in addition to the 12 degrees of freedom in its head.  Although pneumatic actuators are more difficult to control compared to electric motors, they are flexible, allowing for direct physical interaction (a big plus if you want to be able to cuddle it).


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Currently the body weighs just 3 kg (6.6 lbs).  Eventually it will be covered in the same soft urethane elastomer gel as the robot’s face, which will not only make the robot more inviting to touch but safer to interact with.  And they plan to add tiny hands to the arms, and legs can’t be too far behind.  The project is being funded through to 2016, so we can expect further developments.

86 Year Old “Living National Treasure” Gets Android Duplicate

An android based on rakugo storyteller Katsura Beicho (86) was unveiled at a theatre in Osaka Japan, where it will perform in ten minute intervals for audiences from August 1st.  “Looking at the various parts, there are certain similarities,” he said as he watched it perform, but was quick to add it made him feel slightly uncomfortable.

A total of 53 degrees of freedom were required in order to replicate the storyteller’s facial expressions and gestures.  Its movements were based on those of Beicho’s eldest son, also a rakugo performer, who mimicked his father’s movements by watching a video.  The vocal portion of its performance will be an earlier audio recording of the man himself.


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The android, which cost 80,000,000 JPY ($1.02M USD) to create, was developed with the help of Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro (known for creating android twins of real people called Geminoids).  Its appearance is based on a photo of Beicho taken nine years ago.  Shinya Endo, a make-up artist and sculptor who has worked on the Harry Potter films, has been working on it since February.  Kokoro Co. Ltd., an animatronics company, was not mentioned in the reports, but was likely responsible for actually building it.

[source: Asahi Shimbun]

AILA ISS Trains For Work Aboard The Space Station

AILA ISS shows off her new hands (image copyright DFKI)

DFKI Bremen’s humanoid robot AILA is being readied for work in space, thanks to 3.8 Million euros in funding by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).  Project BesMan (Behaviors for Mobile Manipulation) will run the next four years to develop the control software necessary to teleoperate robots in space.  Specifically, the robot will mimic human movements of the torso, arms, and hands.  Already AILA has been given a new pair of five-fingered hands which are much more capable than the fingerless pads it had before (they only picked up boxes, which doesn’t really require fingers).

Like NASA’s Robonaut R2 and Russia’s SAR-400, AILA ISS will be required to grasp and use tools as well as operate control panels.  Although it will be teleoperated by a human on Earth most of the time, it will also need to perceive changes in the environment and act independently should the need arise.  But the researchers are already thinking beyond the space station: the software will be designed to work with robots of varying shapes; from humanoids like DLR’s Justin, to multi-legged climbing robots.  It could then be used to teleoperate robots designed to assemble solar panel energy stations on the Moon ahead of a manned mission.

In order to recreate human-like movements, the researchers are experimenting with a motion-capture system.  Basically a researcher in the lab performs an action which is then simulated on the computer.  The software will break up the movements into smaller segments that can be sent into space and used when necessary. “We must build systems that approach the capabilities of people,” says Prof. Dr. Frank Kirchner, Director of DFKI Robotics Innovation Center and the Robotics Group at the University of Bremen.


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Although the initial investment may seem pricey, sending robots rather than people into space is much safer and will ultimately save millions.

[source: DFKI Bremen (DE)] & [DFKIvideo @ YouTube] via [IEEE Spectrum]

Honda Robotics Demonstrates UNI-CUB & All-New ASIMO

This weekend Honda gave a public demonstration of the latest version of ASIMO along with their UNI-CUB personal mobility vehicle. In 2011 Honda unveiled the third version of their humanoid robot, All-new ASIMO, which is able to perform semi-autonomously. This version is approximately 6 kg lighter than the previous model and has individually-actuated fingers.

The demonstration didn’t include anything new from last year’s reveal, but the audience ate it up. All-new ASIMO ran at its top speed of 9 kph, hopped on one leg, kicked a ball, and so on.  It’s worth pointing out that the thermos and cup routine are identical, suggesting All-new ASIMO hasn’t been trained to handle other objects.  Certainly a lot of time goes into scripting these demos, and they have to be air-tight so as not to lose face, but tweaking it here and there to show the robot’s adaptability wouldn’t hurt.  Meanwhile, Honda is still demonstrating the earlier model in the United States and abroad.


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LIREC (Living with Robots and Interactive Companions) is a five year EU-funded project by ten partners that explores long-term social interaction between humans and robots (as well as digital companions).  The goal is to build the next generation of sociable artificial agents, and to do so some of the teams have been studying the human-canine relationship.  The idea is that robots could benefit from dog-like behavioral models since human-level intelligence and behavior is still out of reach.

The LIREC project is scheduled to end this August, so recently a video of its final review was posted to YouTube. In the thirteen minute demonstration (video), one of the project’s robots plays a simple game where it learns and  guesses colors. As you’ll see, it guesses correctly only some of the time – which just goes to show how difficult it is to build intelligent robots when sensors are finicky!  The project has given rise to two humanoid robot platforms: CHARLY (by the University of Hertfordshire) and FLASH (by the Wroclaw University of Technology).

FLASH (Flexible LIREC Autonomous Social Helper) is the first humanoid robot we’ve seen from Poland.  It’s a combination of Wroclaw University’s EMYS (EMotive headY System), WANDA (a four-fingered dexterous hand and arm), and COSMOS (a self-balancing mobile base).  It stands 1.2 meters tall (just shy of 4 feet), and has approximately 27 degrees of freedom (head x8, neck x3, 2 arms x5, 2 hands x3) actuated predominantly by Robotis servos.  It comes equipped with vision and auditory systems and proximity sensors (laser, ultrasonic, infra-red) for obstacle detection, though it relies on predefined maps of its environment.

Plastic Pals Turns 3 Years Old Today!

Today is the third anniversary of the site, and we’d like to thank you for reading! We hope the site meets your expectations.  Last year we did a robot figure give-away, which we’d like to do again, but it may have to wait a little while. We’ll announce that on our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr before the end of the year, so keep your eyes peeled!

To date we have added 516 robots to the site (give or take), and there’s plenty more where that came from! There are still dozens of older robots we plan to add to the site, which will help complete the robot timeline.  Some of them, like the SONY SDR-3X and QRIO, haven’t been added because we have so much media to sort through and organize.

Besides a new logo (do you like it?) we’re also thinking of changing our permalink structure.  The problem is that changing this will break the existing urls.  I’m not sure there is an easy way to do fix that.  It’s one of those things we didn’t know any better back when we started the site that has bothered us since.  In the future, we may also change the name of the website. When we started it three years ago, it was (and still is) very difficult to find a relevant domain name (Plastic Pals was not our first choice).  Unfortunately lots of great domains are simply registered with the intent to sell them later.  Got any ideas for a new name?  Send them to us via our contact page!