The United Arab Emirates, known for its lavish building projects like the Burj Khalifa, is also financing an equally ambitious robot project. PAL Robotics, based in Barcelona, Spain, was contracted to build a robot that could stand next to the likes of Honda's ASIMO. Now, after nearly a decade, the company has unveiled its third generation humanoid robot.
Named after an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, the REEM robots have been in development since 2004, and it's all thanks to one wealthy science fiction fan. "It's owned by the United Arab Emirates royal family," explains Professor Noel Sharkey, professor of Robotics and Artifical Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, in an interview with robotsandavatars.net. "The young prince is a big Star Trek fan, and so he spent a few million pounds getting all these really good engineers to build this robot for him."
REEM over the years
REEM-A, which looked a little like a storm trooper crossed with C-3PO, took just one year to build. By 2006, it had been programmed to walk and play chess, and it could recognize faces, objects, and verbal commands. In 2007, it placed second in RoboCup soccer's Adult Size league, which involved one-on-one penalty kicks. That same year at Wired NextFest, it one-upped robots like KAIST's HUBO and Honda's ASIMO (which were limited to pre-rehearsed stage shows) by walking around freely amongst the show's visitors.
By 2008, the team's second generation robot, REEM-B, took its first steps. This version of the robot was able to carry up to 12 kg (26 lb), which made it the strongest bipedal humanoid robot at that time. One of REEM-B's more unusual design features included laser range finders on its feet, which could generate maps of its surroundings as it walked. And it was capable of operating for up to 2 hours on its internal batteries, about double the running time of Honda's ASIMO.
However, REEM-B still lagged behind Honda's robot in some respects, since ASIMO was able to walk faster and even run. Tempting as it might be, making direct comparisons between the two isn't really fair, as Honda's robotics budget is more than ten times that of the REEM robots. And besides, REEM-B was built in less than half the time of Honda's first complete humanoid prototype.
In 2010, the company debuted the first commercial version of the robot simply titled REEM, which it designed to roam around malls, airports, and other busy places where it would interact with the public. Keeping speed and safety in mind, it scoots around on wheels rather than legs, and can carry your bags in its luggage compartment. A large touch screen in its chest can show you maps or the latest sales.
In October of that year, PAL Robotics held a contest to gather design ideas for its next generation humanoid. I decided to enter, and though I ended up winning the contest, my design wasn't used (if you're curious, you can see what it looked like here). Since then I've been excited to see how REEM-C would turn out, and it looks like they decided to maintain consistency with their service robot. This allowed them to reuse components, such as the arms, hands, and other parts which have been grandfathered into the design of REEM-C.
Unlike its earlier bipeds, which were never mass produced or sold, PAL Robotics' third generation robot is available to purchase for use as a research platform. It follows a similar trajectory as KAIST's HUBO robots, which are now being sold to universities around the globe for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. According to PAL Robotics, REEM-C is ideal for exploring all sorts of robotics problems including walking, grasping, navigation, whole body control, human-robot interaction, and more.
REEM-C stands 165 cm tall (5 ft 4 in) tall and weighs 70 kg (154 lb), and has a total of 44 degrees of freedom. It walks at a maximum speed of just 28 cm/sec (about 1 ft per second), which is on the slow side, but because it's brand new that is likely to improve with further development.
It has a modular design, which gives some flexibility to parts, but comes equipped with two internal computers as well as stereo cameras, microphones, speakers, and other sensors (including laser range finders on its feet) as standard. Powered by a 48 V Lithium-Ion battery, it can perform for up to 3 hours with frequent movement or 6 hours on stand-by, and takes about 5 hours to fully charge (which is slightly better than its competition).
It's difficult to judge its value against similar humanoid research platforms without knowing how much it costs, and unfortunately PAL Robotics has not gotten back to me about that. However, I would expect it be somewhere in the range of AIST's HRP-4 (US$300k), the working counterpart to this android, and KAIST's HUBO 2 ($400k). Obviously it's not something your average Joe can afford, but prestigious universities (and royalty) may find it ticks all the boxes.
You can see REEM-C taking its first steps in the video below.
Source: PAL Robotics
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