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Iran's Newest Robot Is an Adorable Dancing Humanoid

University of Tehran roboticists have built a dancing, karate-chopping little humanoid called Surena Mini

3 min read
University of Tehran roboticists have recently unveiled a dancing, karate-chopping little humanoid called Surena Mini.
Iranian researchers have recently unveiled a new robot called Surena Mini.
​Photo: University of Tehran

Over the last several years, a team of roboticists at the University of Tehran has been working on increasingly large and complex life-size humanoids. For their latest project, however, the Iranian researchers decided to build something smaller—and cuter.

Surena Mini is a knee-high robot with a sleek 3D-printed body, articulated limbs, and a round head with two camera-eyes. Twenty small servomotors power its arms, legs, and neck, allowing the little robot to walk, gesture, and dance:

“The main purpose of this robot is to provide researchers and students with a reliable robotic platform for educational and research applications,” Aghil Yousefi-Koma, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tehran, told IEEE Spectrum.

He added that his group also has plans to offer the robot “for helping autistic and deaf children.”

A team of 15 researchers at University of Tehran’s Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies worked for over a year to design and build Surena Mini, which is 50 centimeters tall and weighs 3.4 kilograms.

Packed inside the robot are a compact computer with an Intel Core CPU, cameras and infrared sensors, speakers, and an IMU, or inertial measurement unit. Its hands aren’t designed for grasping objects, but Surena Mini can push on small things—or karate-chop them:

A little over a year ago, the same group unveiled Surena III, an advanced adult-sized humanoid designed for researching bipedal locomotion, human-robot interaction, and other challenges in robotics.

Surena III, equipped with cameras, 3D sensor, and a computer running ROS, or Robot Operating System, was able to pick up bottles, imitate a person’s gestures, and stand on one foot.

Surena III, a life-size humanoid robot developed by Iranian researchers at the University of TehranIranian researchers unveiled Surena III in 2015. The robot, almost 2 meters tall and weighing 98 kilograms, can kick a ball, go up a ramp, and walk down a set of steps.Photos: University of Tehran

The Iranian roboticists plan to continue working on Surena III, but they also want to explore the possibility of creating marketable products based on their research, Professor Yousefi-Koma explained, and one of the ideas they had was building a “kid-size version of Surena.”

Surena Mini’s overall size and design appear similar to that of other small humanoids like Nao, developed by French robotics company Aldebaran (now SoftBank Robotics), and Robotis OP2, created by U.S. and South Korean roboticists.

But the Iranian robot has yet to show that it has some of the same skills already demonstrated by those other humanoids. Nao and Robotis OP2 have been used in research labs, schools, and hospitals for nearly a decade. Both arealso used in the RoboCup robot soccer competition.

A team of Iranian researchers from the University of Tehran designed and built the humanoid robot Surena MiniResearchers from the University of Tehran’s Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies, led by Professor Aghil Yousefi-Koma (standing between the robots with red and green feet/hands), worked for over a year to design and build Surena Mini.Photo: University of Tehran

Despite their size, these little robots are pricey. Nao and Robotis OP2 each sell for nearly US $10,000. Professor Yousefi-Koma said Surena Mini will be available for 260,000,000 Iranian rials, or $8,000, but he hopes the cost to come down if the robot can be produced in large batches.

One of the biggest challenges of the project, he explained, has been implementing features like face detection and voice recognition, which would let the robot perform with a greater level of autonomy. His team has developed such capabilities for their large robots, but replicating them using Surena Mini’s limited hardware is a trickier task.

To program the robot, advanced users can modify the source code to create different behaviors. But the researchers wanted to make Surena Mini accessible to less experienced users as well. So they created a programming environment with a graphical interface “designed to be attractive and user-friendly,” Professor Yousefi-Koma said.

“It gives users full access to all available features of the robot,” he added, “so even beginners can make the robot walk and move its arms and head.”

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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
LightGreen

“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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