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An afternoon with Honda's Asimo robot

Glaskowsky reports on his visit to the Honda Innovation Grant Technical Horizon Symposium, where Honda's Asimo robot put in an appearance.

On Thursday afternoon I was back at the Computer History Museum. The Honda Research Institute was hosting its tenth Technical Horizon Symposium and announcing this year's Honda Initiation Grant awards.

Honda's Asimo robot
Honda's Asimo robot Peter Glaskowsky

The grants are part of the Institute's efforts to stimulate collaborate research between Honda and the academic community. Since 1997, Honda says it has awarded 75 grants totalling "several million dollars" to universities in the US. This year, Honda received 300 proposals; it chose seven. This year's awards (listed here along with those of past years) cover research in safety, efficiency, emissions control, and user interfaces.

Also on hand for the event, which attracted an audience of some 300 people, was Asimo, Honda's famous robot. This Asimo is actually the second-generation model, and there were also three generations of prototypes. Over the years, Honda's been able to reduce the size of the necessary motors, power supplies, and control systems; the current Asimo is a cute little thing, just 4'3" (130cm) tall. Although it conveys the impression of solidity and weight, it's actually just 119 pounds (54kg). At this size, Asimo is big enough to interact with humans without posing much of a threat in case it bumps into someone or--as it can do if the power fails suddenly--falls down.

Honda put Asimo through its paces for us-- walking around the stage, balancing on one leg, kicking a soccer ball, traversing a set of stairs, and even running. The latter skill involves a peculiar loping gait; it's almost impossible to tell that Asimo is actually running, but Honda assures us that both feet leave the floor for about 80 milliseconds, during which time the robot moves about 2 inches forward. I was surprised to learn that Asimo is controlled by just four microprocessors, only two of which manage balance and locomotion.

In the audience were several members of the local Homebrew Robotics Club and the founders of Anybots, which I wrote about back in September. Asimo is far beyond the accomplishments of Anybots and other developers of autonomous robots... but then, it should be; Honda has poured untold amounts into its development. I'd guess the total amount must be in excess of $40 million, but Honda isn't saying.

Anyway, it was interesting to get a close look at Asimo. It's an impressive accomplishment, but it has a long way to go before it's ready for commercial sale. I suspect Honda's investment to date is just a drop in the bucket compared to the work that still remains. I can't begin to guess whether Honda will ever recoup its investments, but I'm glad it's doing the work.