An increased understanding of robotics, ability to share knowledge and availability of requisite components have resulted in a proliferation of humanoid robots. Robots like the 3D-printed Poppy and the German Aerospace Center's TORO have been developed relatively recently. Few have the near 30-year heritage of Honda's ASIMO, though.
ASIMO was developed out of Honda's desire to create a robot that could help in human society. For that, it needed to be able to move around objects in a room and negotiate stairs and that, in turn, meant it needed two legs. Its first design, the Eo, could walk by putting one leg in front of the other, but did so slowly and took five seconds between steps.
Honda continued develop the walking ability of its robots throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Innovations included modelling a robot's walk on that of humans, determining center of gravity and torque requirements, and adding sensors into the robots.
From 1993, the company began looking at evolving its walking robots into humanoids, adding upper body sections and the abilities to recognize and target specific destinations, climb stairs and carry objects. Then, in 2000, the first ASIMO was developed.
ASIMO was designed to operate in the human environment, with a view to it being released for such purposes in the future. The robot was able to recognize voices, sounds and images. Its i-Walk technology allowed it to shift its center of gravity to compensate for certain movements, such as moving around corners.
The second generation ASIMO, released in 2002, saw a number of new additions, including its ability to move independently in response to people, to recognize certain objects, faces, movements and gestures, and to assess its surrounding environment. Internet connectivity was also added, allowing ASIMO to answer simple questions, such as about the news or weather.
In 2005, a new version was released that could carry out task in real-life environments, such as carrying a tray of drinks or pushing a cart. It could run at speed, prevent spins and slips, and coordinate its entire body for a specific purpose (for example, to maintain balance). In addition, a host of sensors were added to provide visual, ultrasonic and ground recognition inputs. This was a robot that was increasingly useful, communicative and autonomous.
The year 2007 saw functionality added that would allow two or more ASIMO robots to be connected together and work collaboratively. By this point ASIMO could work out whether to move past an oncoming person or obstacle, or let it pass. The robot could also take itself off to a charger when its battery began to run low. It was this version of the ASIMO that famously conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2008.
The most recent version of ASIMO was released in 2011. It boasted a host of sensors, with a number devoted to mimicking certain human senses, plus it could balance better than previous incarnations and, for the first time, had dexterous hands. Touch sensors throughout the hand and flexible fingers meant it could carry out tasks like opening bottles and pouring liquid.
All of which brings us up to today's announcement. The new ASIMO has been launched in Brussels with a variety of improvements. Many of those improvements are refinements of existing capabilities, but are no less impressive for it.
Improved intelligence allows the robot to recognize the faces and voices of multiple simultaneous speakers, and to change its behavior based on the perceived intention of the other party. This, of course, is calculated based on data collected via the robot's host of sensors.
ASIMO can now run at up to 5.6 mph (9 km/h) – 1.8 mph (2.9 km/h) faster than previously – and can run backwards, jump, and hop on one leg continuously. Its hands are more dexterous, allowing it to pick up a bottle and twist off the cap, and it can use its hands to perform sign language. The robot now has 57 degrees of freedom (ways of moving), up from 23 previously. It is 130 cm (51 in) tall and weighs 50 kg (110 lb).
Honda says that many of the new features and capabilities of ASIMO are a result of its research into the decision-making capabilities of robots. This has led ASIMO to be able to adapt much of its behavior in real time and, claims Honda, brings us one step closer to a world in which robots can be employed at home (or elsewhere) for practical purposes.