Japan has long held world dominance when it comes to walking humanoid robots, its most famous emissary being the charismatic, child-size, astronaut-like Asimo, which ambles, runs, and climbs stairs. Until recently, only South Korea had demonstrated full-size humanoids with legs as impressive as those of their Japanese counterparts. Now other countries are trying to catch up. Here's how four robots might take on Asimo in a future robot race.
REEM-B Pal Robotics, Barcelona
Reem-B was designed to assist humans with everyday tasks, says Davide Faconti, founder of Pal Robotics. The 1.47-meter-high robot can walk at a relatively slow speed of 1.5 kilometers per hour, but thanks to powerful actuators in its legs and arms, Reem-B "is probably the strongest humanoid in the world," says Faconti, boasting that his robot can carry a 12-kilogram payload—say, a big watermelon. Try that, Asimo.
JUSTIN German Aerospace Center's Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, Oberpfaffenhofen-Wessling, Germany
Justin is currently a four-wheeled robot with a head and two dexterous arms, but researchers have demonstrated a pair of legs [right] that may become its lower body. The legs use powerful yet lightweight motors to explore joint torque-based control concepts for biped balancing and walking, according to engineer Christian Ott. If Justin's legs turn out to be as nimble as its arms, Asimo might not stand a chance.
CHARLI Virginia Tech's Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory, Blacksburg, Va.
CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence) is the first untethered, autonomous, full-size walking humanoid robot built in the United States, according to Virginia Tech roboticist Dennis Hong. He and his team are now upgrading it with custom-made linear actuators that help mimic how human limbs move. In a soccer match against Asimo, Hong's team is confident that CHARLI would prevail.
SURENA 2 University of Tehran's Advanced Vehicles Center, Tehran
This 1.45-meter-high humanoid was developed to help researchers explore aspects of bipedal locomotion, says Tehran University professor Aghil Yousefi-Koma. His team is working on a feedback control system that yields a much more humanlike motion. Surena 2 might be a slow walker, but it has its tricks: It can bow, stand on one leg, and according to some news reports, dance. Dance-off, Asimo?
Erico Guizzo is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. He has written stories on a wide range of science and technology topics, including Japanese androids, French computer codes, Icelandic video games, American crash-test dummies, and Canadian bacteria. His main area of interest is robotics, and he has written and edited hundreds of articles and videos featuring the latest advances in this field. He is also the cocreator of Spectrum’s critically acclaimed Robots for iPad app. For his robotics coverage, Guizzo has won four Neal Awards and has been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards. An IEEE member, he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of São Paulo, in his native Brazil, and a master’s in science writing from MIT.