Humanoid ASRA C1 and V-Sido Robot Operating System Unveiled by SoftBank

The Japanese telecom giant is betting big on robotics

3 min read
Humanoid ASRA C1 and V-Sido Robot Operating System Unveiled by SoftBank
Image: Asratec

Earlier this month, Japanese telecom giant SoftBank surprised everyone by unveiling an interactive personal robot called Pepper, which will go on sale in Japan next year. Now we're learning that's not the only robot SoftBank had in the works. One of its subsidiaries, Asratec, announced last week that they've built a prototype bipedal humanoid called the ASRA C1 and have also developed a new operating system for robots, V-Sido.

ASRA C1 is 1.2 meters tall, weighs 13.5 kilograms, and has 35 degrees of freedom, according to specs released by the company. Its limbs are powered by Futaba servos, and it has a gyro, accelerometer, camera, and other sensors. Parts of its body have soft padding, making it safer for people to interact with the robot.

Asratec, based in Tokyo, posted a series of videos showing its humanoid standing up and moving its head and arms. Currently the robot isn't walking, but its creators seem to be putting significant efforts to improve its self-balancing capabilities. The robot can absorb shocks and automatically adjusts its posture to avoid falling over when it's disturbed by, say, a kid throwing a ball on its face. 

The videos also show how you can control the robot by using a joystick or clicking and dragging on the limbs of a 3D virtual model. Another option is standing in front of a Kinect sensor, with the robot copying your movements. We're not sure what applications this could have in home environments, though we could envision some uses in entertainment (making the robot follow your dance moves, for example).

Asratec was founded in July 2013, and its goal is developing robotics products to help advance humanoid technology. Its flagship product is called V-Sido, which consists of a software package and a hardware module.

The software package, V-Sido OS, can be used for controlling a variety of commercial robot kits and servo motors. Thanks to inverse kinematics, users can generate motions in real-time using its software interface or other controllers. Asratec has just released an alpha version of V-Sido OS.

The hardware module is called V-Sido Connect. It's an ARM-based board that can control serial servo motors in combination with V-Sido OS.

It looks like Asratec built the ASRA C1 humanoid to test and demonstrate the versatility of its V-Sido systems. It's not clear if the company plans to commercialize the robot, though SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son appears determined to bring robot helpers into people's lives.

The company designed ASRA C1 in collaboration with two other Japanese companies, RT Corporation and GK Dynamics.

Image: Asratec

One unusual thing about the robot is an extra pair of appendages attached to its torso [pictured right]. These are meant to be grabbed and manipulated directly by a user, driving the robot's arms in a master-slave fashion. The idea, we assume, is that you could use the robot to grab objects for you, or perhaps teach it how to perform manipulation tasks.

V-Sido has many advanced features that aren't typically found in the software packaged with commercial hobby robot kits, so many users will welcome these additional capabilities. On the other hand, V-Sido still seems to lack basic functionalities, such as the ability to create canned motions that can be activated on demand when mapped to a game controller, for example.

If Asratec adds this and other features, and with backing from its powerful parent company, it could see wide adoption of its V-Sido system among hobbyists and companies developing new robot applications. As for ASRA C1, we trust that its creators are teaching it to play soccer, so it can challenge Asimo for a match sometime soon.

[ Asratec ASRA C1 ]

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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

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

"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.

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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