Honda’s bipedal disaster-recovery robot could be rescuing you in the future

Honda builds on its ASIMO robot in pursuit of a robot lifesaver

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Natural disasters are dime-a-dozen for Japan. Its entire history is one of destruction at the hands of nature and then rebuilding as a stronger society. So, it's only fitting that it's also a country at the forefront of disaster recovery innovations - the latest of which is a humanoid robot from Honda.

The robot builds upon the technology the team developed with its cheery bipedal ASIMO robot, but this time focusing on disaster relief spurred on by the events of Fukushima. Known by the slightly Star Wars sounding name of E2-DR, Honda's robot is designed to be nimble, well-balanced and waterproof enough to withstand wet and rainy recovery situations.

Honda has also built E2-DR with the intention it can be used both inside and out, being able to understand complex structures like factories and navigate through them quickly and safely. Amongst E2-DR’s list of abilities, being able to climb and descend stairs, ladders and stepladders is tantamount. It even needs to be able to transition between the two and remain balanced if the object in question has “minimum size cages”.

Other functionalities that Honda deems essential for a disaster recovery robot include the ability to move over pipes, pass through closed doors, absorbing impacts from movement, navigate scattered debris and the power to avoid catastrophic falls due to power loss.

Honda’s list goes well beyond what DARPA believes is needed for a disaster recovery robot, but we’ve all seen how well those robots perform in high-pressure situations. Watch the video below and you’ll see just how advanced this robot is.

Developing for disaster recovery

Honda has actually been working on E2-DR for some time now. Back at 2015’s International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), the company unveiled a research paper on an experimental humanoid robot made for disaster relief. That paper was revisited at this year’s IROS under the name of “Development of Experimental Legged Robot for Inspection and Disaster Response in Plants” and saw the first live demonstration of E2-DR.

Its abilities far outstrip that of any other disaster recovery robot currently out there and Honda has put a lot of thought into its development. Weighing 85 kg, with a height of 1.68m, E2-DR is just 25cm thick to allow it to pass through gaps of 30cm. Honda designed it like this because, in many factories, there are “shortcut” passages for emergencies that can be used to get around blocked doors, these passages are rarely any wider than 30cm.

To help with navigation, E2-DR also has 33 degrees of freedom, with eight degrees of movement per arm, six per leg, two on its torso and one for hands and head. For climbing stairs and ladders, E2-DR rotates its legs around 180-degrees, allowing its knees to bend backwards and not hit the steps or ladder rungs while it climbs.

Honda has also stripped weight from E2-DR by using optical fibres for data transfer instead of traditional cabling. Not only are these fibres only 0.5mm in diameter, they’re incredibly lightweight. To allay fears that fragile optical cables could break more easily than traditional cabling, Honda claims to have twisted and bent one over a million times without any issues, which must have been a tedious job for some poor intern.

Interestingly, Honda has only provided E2-DR with basic hands designed for gripping. The company simply sees it needing hands to grab hold of ladders or objects that need to be moved. When it comes to tools, the company envisions special wireless devices will be used for most tasks, leaving E2-DR’s hands-free.

“As for manipulation tasks, we assume that special tools with wireless communication designed for robots can be used,” Honda explains in its paper. “Therefore the proposed robot does not need to have dexterous hands but only needs to have the ability to grasp the tools and structures in environments such as a crossbar of a ladder to move.”

E2-DR is, currently, set to be a teleoperated robot – meaning someone is controlling it remotely. Autonomous functionality is likely to come, especially as ASIMO was almost entirely autonomous, but for now, Honda has equipped E2-DR with a wide array of sensors so a remote pilot can easily interact with the environment. Each hand has a camera and 3D sensor built into it, and on top of its head, it has two rotating Hokuyo laser rangefinders, a camera with synchronised LED flash, an SR4000 time-of-flight camera and stereo cameras linked to an infrared light projector.

Finally, in a bid to make E2-DR a hardy disaster recovery robot, Honda has given it a dustproof and splashproof coating, along with an operating temperature range of -10 to 40-degrees Celsius.

E2-DR is still, very much, in its development stages. This is very far from a complete product but it’s interesting to see what Honda has been working on behind the scenes. There’s a very real chance that Honda’s bright-orange recovery robot could be saving lives in the very near future.

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