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Robots pick up the pace

Consumer-oriented robots take a number of steps forward with the release of new robo-dogs and breakthroughs for humanoids. And don't forget the slug-eating robot.

By Graeme Wearden

Consumer-oriented robots took a number of steps forward in the past year.

A start-up in England designed a robot hound that dwarfed Sony's Aibo. Sony hit back with a new pack of robot dogs for the consumer market. Meanwhile, researchers at universities and in the private sector made several breakthroughs in their quest to create an intelligent humanoid.

England's RoboScience unveiled its first model, the RS-01 RoboDog--a 27-inch tall, 26-pound hound billed as "the world's most powerful, most advanced and largest commercial legged robot."

RoboDog--which runs on Windows--was designed in seven months by a team led by an ex-Formula One engineer. It can carry a load of up to 55 pounds and is capable of understanding some human speech. A limited number of models have been sold, for around $29,000, and the RoboScience team is now hard at work designing a sequel, the RS-10, which should be released sometime in 2002.

Consumer electronics giant Sony didn't slack off in 2001 either. Latte and Macaron, the latest additions to the Aibo family, made their first public appearances. Both were smaller and more playful than earlier Aibos, and at $850 each they pose less danger to the wallet than earlier models, which went for around $2,000.

NAME Sony also created a meaner and more powerful automated dog. The Aibo ERS-220 is aimed at the 25- to 45-year-old market and is more aggressive than the likes of Latte and Macaron. Apparently, Aibo ERS-220 will make a growling noise similar to a revved car engine when he's excited.

Sony caused some upset, though, when it forced one robotics enthusiast to remove code from his Web site that changed Aibo's functionality.

The programs apparently allowed Aibo owners to teach their dog new tricks, such as disco dancing. But Sony complained that the programs violated proprietary code. Some Aibo owners objected, claiming they would have benefited from knowing how to change Aibo's software.

Others in Japan, including the country's government, are also at the forefront of the robotics world.

In 2001, the Japanese government began a multimillion-dollar investment program to speed up the creation of intelligent robots.

Japanese manufacturer NEC also got in on the act by creating an Internet-enabled egg-shaped robot. Meanwhile, Honda has made great progress with its Asimo robot. The diminutive android can walk down stairs, respond to verbal instructions and talk.

Honda is now able to recoup some of its 15 years of investment in Asimo by renting some models out as receptionists or tour guides.

Fujitsu is taking an open-source approach to its robot developments. This year, it released the technical specs of its Linux-based Hoap-1 automaton, in the hope that people would use the information to create their own programs.

Japanese scientists also created a walking, Linux-operated, humanoid robot. The two-legged H7 robot is around 54 inches tall and weighs 121 pounds. It has 36 joints--or "degrees of freedom"--which H7's developers claim means it has full body motion.

This leaves only the slug-eating robot.

Scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol have created the SlugBot, which can hunt down the mucus-coated creatures, take them back to base to rot, and use the bodies for power.

Staff writer Graeme Wearden reported from London.