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Kawasaki’s Robot Ibex: Can It Be Tamed?

It’s got wheels, legs, horns, handlebars—and a possible penchant for cargo

3 min read
Kawasaki’s Robot Ibex: Can It Be Tamed?
Kawasaki Robotics via ITmedia

This is Bex. It is, as near as I can tell, a robotic ibex, designed by Kawasaki and inspired by the fiercely horny species of goat native to many mountainous regions of Africa and Eurasia. Bex made its first appearance at iREX this week in Japan, and we should talk about why a Kawasaki robot ibex now exists, besides, of course, the simple fact that it’s just so darn fun to say out loud.

Kawasaki has been working on a “Robust Humanoid Platform” (RHP) called Kaleido since 2015, and Bex is a “friend” of that program. Masayuki Soube, who is in charge of development of the RHP, was interviewed recently on Kawasaki Robotics’ website about the Bex program. The conversation was conducted in Japanese. What follows (in italics) are Google Translate’s best attempts at rendering Soube’s observations into workable English:

Through the development of Kaleido, we felt the difficulty of biped robots. Because humanoid robots have the same shape as humans, they are highly versatile, with the potential to do everything that humans can ultimately do. However, it will take a long time to put it to practical use. On the other hand, we are also developing a self-propelled service robot that moves on wheels, but legs are still suitable for moving on rough terrain rather than wheels. So, halfway between humanoid robots and wheeled robots, [we] wondered if there was an opportunity. That’s why we started developing Bex, a quadruped walking robot. We believe that the walking technology cultivated in the development of humanoid robots can definitely be applied to quadruped walking robots.

It's worth noting that Bex appears to have a hybrid mobility system, with knee wheels that it can kneel on to move more quickly on smooth and level surfaces. It’s also worth noting that Bex has a seat and handlebars (!), and it can carry up to 100 kilograms.

Rather than committing Bex to human hauling, Kawasaki had sadly settled on more practical applications, according to Masayuki Soube:

First of all, Bex can carry light cargo, such as transporting materials at a construction site. The other application is inspection. In a vast industrial plant, Bex can look around and images from its camera can be remotely checked to see what the instruments are doing. Bex can also carry crops harvested by humans on farmland.

Although the base of Bex is a legged robot, the upper body of Bex is not fixed and we are thinking of adapting it according to the application. If it is a construction site, we will form a partnership with the construction manufacturer, and if it is a plant, we will form a partnership with the plant manufacturer and leave the upper body to us. Kawasaki Heavy Industries will focus on the four legs of the lower body and want to provide it as an open innovation platform.

Bex under development at Kawasaki RoboticsKawasaki Robotics

Kawasaki is certainly not the first company to be thinking about quadrupedal robots as inspection platforms. It’s also not the first to work on hybrid mobility for quadrupeds; in fact, I’m betting that Bex would have a lot of (literal) catching up to do in that space. But the idea of a quadrupedal cargo system is somewhat interesting—most quadrupeds consider cargo in terms of what useful payload they can carry, and typically those payloads are engineered around things like sensors, which don’t weigh all that much. Could Bex bring us back to the days of Boston Dynamics’ BigDog and LS3, where quadrupedal cargo haulers took a run at practicality? It would take a lot of work, but boy do I hope so. Big, powerful quadrupeds are super cool, especially if they have horns.

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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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