Toyota City, Japan - This is T-HR3, Toyota’s third-generation humanoid robot, designed and developed to explore new ways of managing the interaction between robots and their surroundings, as well as a new remote system that enables the robot to mimic exactly what its ‘pilot’ is doing.
OK, so technically it’s not a robot at all, it’s a very sophisticated waldo - a remote-controlled manipulator, named after a 1942 short story by science-fiction doyen Robert A Heinlein, in which accurately described such manipulators built by an disabled inventor.
But it is very sophisticated indeed. Previous-generation humanoid robots, which were created to test precise and repeatable movements, could play musical instruments - this one can do much, much more. And, since it has stereoscopic cameras where you and I have eyes, that project a 3D image onto the operator’s headset, there is no limit to the distance between the operator and robot.
The T-HR3 could theoretically help a human carry out complex tasks in another room or another country, in medical facilities, construction sites, disaster areas and even outer space.
So how does it work?
The robot is operated from a chair-like control station with wearable full-movement sensors that map the operator’s hand, arm and foot movements in real time; the master foot control is accurate enough that by walking on the spot in the chair the operator can make the T-HR3 walk, dance, and even balance on one foot and wind up for a baseball pitch.
The movements mapped by the sensors are sent to 29 torque servo modules in the robot’s joints, each containing tiny electric motors with reduction gears that move that joint in exact mimicry of the operator’s movements.
More importantly, each torque servo module has a torque sensor that can gauge accurately how much force the module is exerting and transmit that back to the control sensors - that’s how the T-HR3 can juggle eggs, pat a balloon without popping it, and perform delicate jobs in places that humans can’t go, such as radioactivity leaks or toxic contamination.
There’s even a self-interference prevention system built into the mapping to ensure that the robot doesn’t hurt either the operator or itself.
Co-ordination and balance
The torque servo modules enable the T-HR3's most important abilities: Flexible joint control, regulating the force with which the robot touches people or things around it, whole body co-ordination and balance - which is how it’s able to stand on one leg, and avoid falling over if the operator causes it to bump into something solid.
Toyota has been developing robots carry carry out repetitive tasks in its car plants since the 1980s; they’re very good at that because they don’t get bored. Now its Partner Robots division is using that expertise to develop mobility solutions that can help doctors, caregivers and patients, the elderly, and people with disabilities.