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RealTime IT News

Toyota's Next-Gen Computers: Robots

Move over, R2D2. Toyota is developing a family of "partner robots" that are designed to function as "personal assistants for humans."

The car maker has so far built three prototypes: a walking model on two legs, one on wheels, and a "mountable," or passenger-carrying design, which it will demonstrate this month at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan.

Toyota said it created the robots by applying the expertise it had developed in drive-control systems and buttressing it with new stabilizing technologies. It also took lightweight, high-precision sensors from the automotive world and used them to create an attitude sensor that detects the tilt of a robot.

After the Expo, Toyota plans to move the development of the robots forward in hopes of forging commercial-grade models that are intelligent enough to skillfully operate a variety of devices in the areas of personal assistance, manufacturing, and mobility.

Toyota's announcement comes as robots increasingly move out of realms once reserved for science fiction novels and into the practical, thanks to advances in computer science such as artificial intelligence that enables robots to perform practical tasks. Indeed, practical robots are gaining more prominence in technology news. For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has just launched a "Grand Challenge," in which the first team to get a robot to navigate a 150-mile course through the Mojave Desert without human intervention gets to claim a $1 million prize.

Though 106 teams applied to DARPA for entry and 15 teams made it to the starting line, none completed the course. Most of the designs were wheeled robots with onboard computers and sensors. The most successful team's entry completed 7.2 miles before it got stuck on a bump and its rubber wheels caught fire.

With its biped robot prototype, Toyota is following in the footsteps of automotive competitor Honda, which has put together ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.)

Billed as the world's most advanced walking robot, ASIMO, is a four-foot-tall, 115-lb. upright automaton on two legs.

Honda began research in robots in 1986. ASIMO has existed in various forms since 1997. The most recent version was introduced in 2002.

It is powered by a 40V nickel metal hydride battery, runs 30 minutes on a charge, is equipped with 26 motors, and can sustain a walking speed of one mile per hour. Its software is controlled by Wind River's VxWorks proprietary embedded operating system.

Toyota's design reportedly uses Linux to control a Pentium III-based board-level computer. Company officials couldn't be reached at posting time for confirmation.

Like Toyota, Honda said it intends to deploy the robot in home situations for housework and heavy lifting. Honda has said it will sell ASIMO, but most of its efforts are devoted to publicity. Honda has been taking ASIMO on tour across the United States and Europe during the past few years. Next week, (March 23) it will visit a middle school in New York City.