THE last time I saw Hubo, it was zipping around an assault course on wheeled knees and hacking through walls with a saw. Today, its 80 kilograms hang lifeless from a bright yellow gantry, arms limp by its sides.
It’s been a year since Hubo won the– the hardest robotics competition ever staged – and I’ve come to the Korean Institute for the Advancement of Science and Technology to catch up with Hubo and its creator Jun-Ho Oh.
Oh has been busy, getting his life-size humanoid robot ready for an even tougher challenge: making the leap from assault course to your home.
An unassuming single-storey construction, Building N9, houses one of the most advanced robotics labs in the world. Inside, there are monitors everywhere, buckets filled with bolts, and reams of cabling. In a side room, Hubo clones stand around in varying stages of completion. Some are just legs, wires and metal joints poking out of robot hips.
Since winning the competition, Oh’s spin-off company Rainbow Robots has been churning out Hubos for the international market. Most recently, it has shipped four to labs in the US.
Now the company is working on consumer robots, including domestic and medical models. And this means making Hubo simple enough for anyone to operate.
, made by US firm Boston Dynamics, create buzz. They are flashy, scary and look good in promo videos. “These days there are many fancy robots,” says Oh. “But can they be used by normal people, without a team of engineers?”
Typically not. Robots are still specialist playthings. They go wrong often and need debugging constantly. At an event like the DARPA Robotics Challenge, teams of engineers spent days preparing their robots just to get them to function for a few minutes.
“Unlike other robot demos, I’m standing right next to Hubo. There is no safety harness“
Oh wants Hubo to be different. He has been tweaking it continuously, making it more reliable. He has written accessible instruction manuals. And he has addressed the problem of storage: Hubo can be taken apart into five pieces and packed away into suitcases.
Some of Oh’s team winch Hubo down from the gantry and switch it on. They guide its feet to the floor and, with the click of a mouse, instruct it to walk over a path strewn with rubble. Hubo walks slowly and steadily, like a human would if their life depended on stepping in exactly the right spot.
Then Oh hands me a thick beam of wood as long as my leg. “Hold that right at the end,” he says. “It’s difficult, isn’t it?” I pass the beam to Hubo, who grasps it at the other end, then twists its wrist through 360 inhuman degrees, wielding the wood like a sword. “He’s strong,” says Oh.
Unlike other robot demos I’ve seen, I’m standing right next to Hubo. There is no safety harness. Such is Oh’s confidence in Hubo’s reliability.
Oh chuckles as I grasp Hubo’s outstretched manipulator and shake it. In years of writing about robots, this is the first time I have ever properly met one.
This article appeared in print under the headline “House-training Hubo”
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