Fans of the sci-fi film Minority Report will no doubt recall the autonomous insect-like searcher robots deployed to find Tom Cruise's character mid-way through the flick. While not as elegant (or sinister) as its film counterparts, the Asterisk robot being developed by the Arai Robotics Lab at Osaka University in Japan does an excellent job of resembling a big, mechanical bug with some interesting skills. After over six years of development, this unusual "limb-mechanism" robot now boasts an impressive array of functions that may soon find it performing vital tasks in numerous areas of society, including search and rescue and building maintenance.
Viewed from the top down, the reason behind the name "Asterisk" becomes self-evident, although a mechanical insect also comes to mind, which is not surprising as its creators looked to the insect world for inspiration when designing the robot. The six limbs, symmetrically spaced at 60-degree intervals around its body, each have four degrees of freedom and enable the robot to move in virtually any direction. It has no designated top or bottom so If it gets flipped upside-down, the legs reorient and it goes on about its business.
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Currently, Asterisk can walk (up to 0.5 m/sec or 1.64 ft/s) or roll on wheel-equipped legs, recognize stairs, pick up objects ("prey") with two of its six legs, safely push a polygonal prism load, avoid obstacles, walk upside down or vertically on gridded surfaces and even do cartwheels! It can also shift into a low-profile configuration (3 in / 78 mm high) to get into tight spaces - ideal for one of its intended uses as an extra set of eyes in disaster situations. That's a lot of ability in such a small package - one which, with any luck, may be helping to save lives some day soon.
Check out the video below to see the Asterisk in action at the 2011 International Robot Exhibition: