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February 2004

Run, Robot, Run!

QRIO running (2003 Sony Corporation)

More than 80 years ago, Czech writer Karel Capek first created the word "robot" in his Science Fiction novel R.U.R. Since then, much progress has been made in developing the kind of humanoid robots that Capek envisaged. The latest news is that robots can now "run."

In January, Japanese home electronics maker Sony Corporation said it had succeeded in developing a prototype of the world's first running robot. The robot, called QRIO (short for 'Quest for Curiosity'), is the latest generation of Sony's SDR (Sony Dream Robot) series of prototype entertainment robots.

Standing 58 centimeters tall and weighing seven kilograms, QRIO has big blue eyes and is covered in gleaming magnesium alloy. It may look like a toy, but its small body is packed with technology. QRIO can walk, climb up and down stairs, and even dance! Its cameras, sensors, and computer software also allow it to avoid obstacles, remember names and faces, keep up a conversation, and sing in a vibrato voice.

QRIO balancing on a surfboard (2003 Sony Corporation)

Simple human actions are very difficult to reproduce in a robot. Getting a robot to walk was one of the first and biggest challenges for robot scientists. Walking is a delicate balancing act in which the body's center of gravity is constantly shifting as each foot is placed forward. Try walking in slow motion, and you'll understand how hard it is! Engineers solved the problem of getting a robot to walk using the ZMP (Zero Moment Point) rule. Sole sensors and positioning sensors fitted to the robot are used to calculate stable points of contact with the ground.

Now imagine running. When we run, there are times when both our feet are in the air. But having both feet in the air makes it impossible for a robot to gather data from the sensors on the soles of its feet, as it would if it was walking. Sony engineers overcame this challenge by developing new motion control mechanisms and improving the CPU (Central Processing Unit) of the robot's computer.

QRIO throwing a ball (2003 Sony Corporation)

In a demonstration last December, QRIO ran and jumped in front of reporters and cameramen. Right now, it can only jog slowly in short strides at a pace of 14 meters per minute. But data showed that both of QRIO's feet were in the air for 20 seconds out of every 1,000 minutes, proving that it was technically "running" like a human. With future progress, robots may some day be able to play soccer or even basketball.

QRIO can also throw a ball. This is good timing, because recently a University of Tokyo professor developed a robot that can swing a bat. In theory, this robot can hit a ball with as much force and accuracy as Japanese Major Leaguer Suzuki Ichiro of the Seattle Mariners. One day, these two robots could get together and play baseball!

QRIO still needs a lot of improvement to get it up to speed. But wouldn't it be cool to go jogging one day with your own pet robot? Perhaps your dog could come too!

NOTICE: Since October 9, 2003, Japanese names in Kids Web Japan have been written in their original order: surname first.

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