SCHAFT Unveils Awesome New Bipedal Robot at Japan Conference

SCHAFT demos a new bipedal robot designed to "help society"

2 min read
SCHAFT unveils a new bipedal robot designed to “help society”
Yuto Nakanishi from SCHAFT demos its latest bipedal robot at NEST 2016 in Toyko.
Photo: Tim Hornyak

Right now, the New Economic Summit (NEST) 2016 conference is going on in Tokyo, Japan. One of the keynote speakers is Andy Rubin. Rubin was in charge of Google’s robotics program in 2013, when the company (now Alphabet) acquired a fistful of some of the most capable and interesting robotics companies in the world. One of those companies was SCHAFT, which originated at the JSK Robotics Laboratory at the University of Tokyo and is best known for winning the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials by an absurd amount.

We haven’t heard anything from SCHAFT over the past three years, and all we know is that they’re now part of X, Alphabet’s experimental technology lab. Somehow, Rubin convinced them to show up to his NEST keynote, and they brought a brand new bipedal robot along with some absolutely incredible video of what they’ve been up to.

Video: mehdi_san
SCHAFT co-founder and CEO Yuto Nakanishi climbed onstage to introduce his company’s new bipedal robot. He explains that the robot can climb stairs, carry a 60-kg payload, and step on a pipe and keep its balance. It can also move in tight spaces, and the video shows the robot climbing a narrow staircase by positioning its legs behind its body (1:22). In a curious part of the demo (1:36), the robot is shown cleaning a set of stairs with a spinning brush and what appears to be a vacuum attached to its feet. Finally, the robot is seen outdoors, negotiating rough terrain, slippery rocks, and snow.

A few quick caveats: I literally just saw this on Twitter, posted by Japan-based journalist Tim Hornyak, who was at Rubin’s keynote. I found a few more pics from Rakuten Today’s Twitter feed, and the video above (from someone else in the audience), but I have very little additional information. UPDATE: An X spokesperson says the SCHAFT presentation “wasn’t a product announcement or indication of a specific product roadmap. The team was simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress.” So it looks like SCHAFT and the rest of the robotics group at X continue to look for specific real-world problems to address.

SCHAFT's new bipedal robot Photo:  Rakuten Today via  Twitter

According to Hornyak, SCHAFT’s new robot (which hasn’t been named yet) “is designed to be a low-cost, low-power, compact device to ‘help society.’ ” It can lift 60 kg, travel over uneven terrain, and even tackle stairs, which are notoriously difficult for robots.

SCHAFT's new bipedal robot to 'help society'

Photo: Rakuten Today via Twitter

We’ll do our best to find out as much more info on this robot as we can, but for now, this is what we’ve got. Check back for updates!

Special thanks to Tim Hornyak (@robotopia) and Angelica Lim (@petitegeek).

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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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