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Honda Halts Asimo Development in Favor of More Useful Humanoid Robots

Honda will focus on elder care and disaster robots rather than improvements to its iconic humanoid

3 min read
Honda's humanoid robot Asimo
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Yesterday, NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation) reported that Honda has decided to cancel further development of its flagship humanoid robot, Asimo. A Honda representative who spoke with AFP said, “We will still continue research into humanoid robots, but our future robots may not be named Asimo. We have obtained lots of technologies while developing Asimo, and how to utilize them is one issue.”

It’s not like Honda is abandoning robotics completely, or even abandoning the idea of humanoid robots. Instead, it sounds like the company wants to start focusing on how to apply the technology that it has to make robots that don't just promote its brand but actually help out with things like elder care and disaster relief. But why now, and what’s next? We have some ideas.

Development of Asimo began in 1986 (!), and the current version of Asimo was announced in 2011, which is still a long time ago in robot years. For most of those years, Asimo has been unchallenged as an example of Honda’s cutting-edge robot engineering. It could climb stairs, run, and even hop on one foot, all very difficult tasks for (relatively) large humanoid robots. Asimo may not have competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, but compared to those robots, it was still smooth, capable, and futuristic looking, and Honda was fine with that. 

However, over the past year or so, humanoid robots from Boston Dynamics (and other folks as well) have started demonstrating capabilities that Asimo can’t hope to match. And if you see Asimo’s standard demo today after having watched the latest Atlas videos, you may come away slightly disappointed—the only new skill that Asimo has added recently is that it dabs, which, while I don’t claim to know what dabbing is, doesn’t look all that difficult. Honda had long called Asimo “the world’s most advanced humanoid robot,” but that’s now very much in doubt.

It’s not like Honda is abandoning robotics completely, or even abandoning the idea of humanoid robots. Instead, it sounds like the company wants to start focusing on how to apply the technology to help out with things like elder care and disaster relief

Honda had to make a decision: Do they create a new generation of Asimo to try (and quite possibly fail) to keep ahead of the state of the art in humanoid robotics, or do they instead embrace the fact that robotics technologies are getting more useful and practical, and invest in robots that can actually do stuff in the real world, not just on a demo stage?

In that context, the answer seems clear. It’s also possible that the Fukushima disaster played some role in this shift in perspective for Honda—Asimo, and Japanese robots in general, took some flack for being very sophisticatedbut not actually able to help out when it really mattered.

Put all of these things together and Honda’s robotics research trajectory over the last several years makes complete sense:

July 2013: Honda Developing Disaster Response Robot Based on ASIMO

October 2015: Honda Using Experimental New ASIMO for Disaster Response Research

October 2017: Honda Unveils Prototype E2-DR Disaster Response Robot

From the look of things, Honda has been shifting its focus toward humanoid disaster relief for years now, and it’s interesting that their initial concepts were very Asimo-y, but that their most recent prototype completely abandons both the Asimo name and aesthetic, even as you can still easily identify some of the Asimo technology that makes E2-DR move the way it does. To be honest, I’m way more excited to see what Honda can do with E2-DR than I’ve ever been for Asimo—with Asimo, there was always this understanding that it would never be real-world useful, but E2-DR has much more potential.

Asimo was always a placeholder for Honda, a demonstration of what robots could potentially be, sometime in the future. We’re going to miss seeing it do cool new things. But now that robotics is starting to trade potential for realistic capabilities, it’s time for Honda to concentrate on what matters most: not just good demos but useful, helpful robots that can make our lives better.

[ Honda ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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