NTU unveils Singapore’s first human-sized smart robot that can see, respond to instructions and walk up stairs
In the near future, a visitor arriving at NTU may be greeted by a life-sized robot that says, “Hello, I’m NASH. How may I help you?”
“Who built you? Can I meet him?” you ask. Nash, whose name is short for ‘NTU Advanced Smart Humanoid’, replies: “Sure, I’ll take you to my inventor, Prof Xie. This way please.”
Nash leads the way, through corridors and an elevator, down to a laboratory, where he introduces you to Associate Professor Xie Ming.
“Hi, I see you have an interest in Nash. For a robot he is really smart, since he can move easily, manipulate the elevator and recognise the route here. I take it that you had no problem conversing with him? He understands human languages and implied meanings quite well,” Prof Xie adds with a grin.
Much like the famous golden protocol robot from Star Wars, C3PO, this robot built by NTU can observe its environment, gesture, walk, climb stairs and follow verbal instructions, making it possibly the smartest humanoid robot in the world. It has a mind capable of understanding meaning in words, and stands “a-head” at 1.8m, looking similar to those found in Hollywood films, like the one in Will Smith’s movie, i-Robot.
Other advanced robots do not even come close in terms of “intelligence” as well as in size. Physically, they are still “teenagers”, standing at about 1.5 metres and weighing 40 kg on average.
Not only is it tall and smart, this 80kg “dreambot” is sturdy as well, resisting pushes and pulls from different directions, thanks to force sensors installed in its ankles, impressive when compared to other humanoid robots which can barely stand on their own.
It is easy for a human being to walk but for a robot to do that, at least hundreds of algorithms are needed to control the 40 motors and harmonic drives installed at its joints, to keep the robot standing and moving.
For now, the robot constructed from lightweight aluminium and covered by hardy plastics, can walk forward and backwards, turn in different directions, climb stairs and has an impressive range of upper body movements.
Controlling its actions is also a simple task, as the robot responds to human languages, understanding instructions similar to how one commands, for instance, a pet dog.
Prof Xie, a scientist from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, hopes that Nash will soon be able to interact with people and help them with menial tasks, such as carrying and lifting objects, and to assist the elderly, given Singapore’s aging population.
The project to build a human-sized robot started from 2006, when Prof Xie set out to do what no one else in the world had done – to integrate human-like locomotion, manipulation and intelligence into a low cost human-sized platform.
Prof Xie, who is also the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Humanoid Robotics (indexed by SCI/SCIE) and one of the world’s leading authorities for humanoid robots, said he already had ideas on how to overcome the limitations that prevented scientists worldwide from designing mentally and physically capable robots back in 2003 when he wrote his book, “Fundamentals of Robotics”.
Robots, unlike humans, cannot automatically balance themselves even when they have a gyroscope, which detects the orientation of an object, like the ones found in smart phones.
Advanced planning and control will have to be done in order for the robot to know how much to shift its weight forward or backwards, based on data from the force sensors, just for it to simply stand upright.
“It took us over two years to come up with the design of a two-legged humanoid robot which could mimic the movement of hands, arms and legs of a human body,” said the 48-year-old scientist, who has a start-up company dealing in robotics technology.
“That wasn’t the hardest part, as the biggest challenge was to make the robot walk on uneven terrains without falling, and to recognize push and pull forces so it can resist and counterbalance itself. We have been trying very hard to solve these problems through the use of specific planning and control algorithms, which took us the better part of the last three years.”
“Now, we are in a better position to make this a social robot, one that can talk and respond to humans, to understand us and to do what we ask of it to do. This will be a future challenge because it relies on cognitive linguistics, which will make the robot understand what we are asking it to do, with the use of human languages instead of numerical values used in computer programming.”
This robotics project is supported by and built in NTU, with various parts of its technology developed and adapted from other related research projects.
Robotics has always been a research of focus at NTU, which has two centres dedicated to the study: the Robotics Research Centre and the Centre of Intelligent Machines, both housed at NTU’s College of Engineering.
NTU’s College of Engineering is also the birthplace of the X-Sat, Singapore’s first locally built satellite, which was successfully launched into space in April 2011. Its younger sibling, VELOX-I, a pair of satellites designed, built and operated by NTU engineering students, is set to follow its path among the stars in 2013.
Professor Chua Chee Kai, Chair of MAE, said the local home-grown robot is a testament to NTU’s engineering strengths and skills.
“This world’s tallest smart robot places NTU and Singapore on the global map when it comes to robotics research. While many institutes around the world are also tackling similar challenges when making robots mimic human movement and behavior, here at NTU we have made significant headway in solving some of those problems and we are now one step closer to the social robots of the future,” Prof Chua added.
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A research-intensive public university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has 33,500 undergraduate and postgraduate students in the colleges of Engineering, Business, Science, and Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences.† In 2013, NTU will enrol the first batch of students at its new medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, which is set up jointly with Imperial College London.
NTU is also home to four world-class autonomous institutes – the National Institute of Education, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Earth Observatory of Singapore, and Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering – and various leading research centres such as the Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI) and Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N).
A fast-growing university with an international outlook, NTU is putting its global stamp on Five Peaks of Excellence: Sustainable Earth, Future Healthcare, New Media, New Silk Road, and Innovation Asia.
Besides the main Yunnan Garden campus, NTU also has a satellite campus in Singapore’s science and tech hub, one-north, and is setting up a third campus in Novena, Singapore’s medical district.
For more information, visit www.ntu.edu.sg