Marathon runners require long hours of training, plenty of water, and an iron will. In the world's first bipedal robot marathon, the key ingredients seemed to be line-tracking algorithms, batteries, and lots of compressed air coolant.
The 42.195-kilometer race (the length of a real marathon) took place in Osaka, and a little humanoid robot called Robovie-PC was the big champion. It crossed the finish line on Saturday, after a grueling 54 hours, 57 minutes and 50.26 seconds -- more than two days running non-stop on the track. Only 1.73 seconds later, another contestant, Robovie-PC Lite, completed the race. The robot naming isn't a coincidence: The two robots were the submissions of Vstone robotics company, which organized the event with the city of Osaka.
It was an exciting ending. Watch:
What makes a winning robot? Team Vstone used line-tracking to navigate the track, taking advantage of the rule allowing autonomous navigation. The other four teams, including two student teams from Osaka Institute of Technology, patiently controlled their bots using game controller-like remotes. A dedicated human presence was also necessary to support the "runners": When batteries ran low, teams rushed in to swap them for fresh ones. Periodically, teams also needed to spray overheating motors with cans of cool, compressed air. Falling, however, was not a problem -- all robots had to be designed with an automatic "getting up" feature.
At an average speed of 0.7 km/h, the robots were about as exciting as watching a tortoise cross the Sahara. However, these endurance races highlight the requirements for long-running, autonomous robots. Robots -- that don't have their own dedicated pit crew -- need autonomous navigation, automatic recharging, and low-maintenance actuators. The bipedal aspect was also important; stairs and raised sidewalks are constant reminders that our world is designed for two-legged humans.
The Japanese government is aiming for robots to take care of their nation's aging population. But if we want robots to take care of us, instead of the other way around, we'll first need to see a robot marathon where no human intervention is required. So what we saw here were the first steps -- literally.
Image: Vstone Co.
Angelica Lim is a graduate student at the Okuno and Ogata Speech Media Processing Group at Kyoto University, Japan.