Cheering on Japan’s latest high-tech robotics

‘Cheerleader’ robots put inverted pendulum control technology on display, Irish Riverdance style.

Murata's Yuichi Kojima says the sensor technology could be used in cars to prevent collisions [John Boyd/Al Jazeera]
Murata's Yuichi Kojima says the sensor technology could be used in cars to prevent collisions [John Boyd/Al Jazeera]

Tokyo, Japan – Japanese electronics component maker Murata Manufacturing unveiled its latest generation of robots this week, an entire group of small, doll-like dancing cheerleaders whose faultless synchronised movements will have even human dancers up on their feet applauding.

The Murata Cheerleaders, as the robots are dubbed, follow in the footsteps of Murata Boy, a bicycling robot, and a female counterpart, Murata Girl, who rides a unicycle.

Instead of balancing on one or two wheels, however, the 10 cheerleaders accomplish their act balancing on top of steel balls. They can move smoothly in any direction while always remaining upright, Irish Riverdance style, courtesy of three ultra-small micro-electro-mechanical (MEMS) gyro sensors: devices that sense the change in angular rotation each moment in time.

The sensors incorporate a balance control feature – known as inverted pendulum control technology – that enables the robot to sense its own inclination and angle its body to counter tilt.

Similar technology can be found in digital cameras to prevent camera shake spoiling picture taking,” Koichi Yoshikawa, told Al Jazeera.

Koichi Yoshikawa and the Murata Cheerleaders [John Boyd]

Yoshikawa was a member of the development group that produced the second-generation Murata Boy in 2005, and then went on to lead the project team behind the cheerleader robots, before assuming his current role as senior manager of corporate communications.

Multiple applications

Besides digital cameras, the technology is used in car navigation systems to provide data on a vehicle’s turning movements when a global positioning satellite (GPS) signal is blocked by tall buildings, as well as in electronic stability control systems in motor vehicles to prevent skidding when braking suddenly.

In addition to constantly maintaining an upright balance and waving colour-changing pom-poms on cue, the robots can move in perfect synchronised formation. To do this, Yoshikawa explains that each robot is equipped with four infrared LED sensors and five ultrasonic sensors that together enable the robots to locate their position in real time.

Two beacons, one placed on either side of the event space, incorporate an infrared light-emitting diode (LED) module and an ultrasonic transmitter, which blanket the dance space with their respective light and sound signals.

The signals travel at different speeds, somewhat in the way thunder can be heard following a flash of lightening. The ultrasonic sensors in the robot pick up the sound signals, while the infrared LED sensors receive the light signals. The sensors measure the arrival times of the signals and the differences between the two are used to calculate the robot’s position in regards to the beacons.

The robots also incorporate a wireless communications module. Thanks to the real-time position measurement technology just described, each robot employs the module to relay its location (via a shared wireless-network) to a host computer.

The computer is equipped with a specially developed control programme that uses tracking and avoidance algorithms, and it uses the same wireless network to choreograph each robot’s movements so as to complete a programmed dance routine and avoid collisions.

Murata, which is headquartered in Kyoto, worked with researchers from Kyoto University to create this control system, which is based on the university’s development of technology used to simultaneously control a group of rescue and monitoring robots designed to work in disaster-hit areas.

Doll-like dancing cheerleaders display faultless synchronised movements [John Boyd/Al Jazeera]

In the future [the communications aspect of] this technology could be used in wearable digital products like watches and glasses to communicate with a smart phone, says Yoshikawa. And if implemented in cars, it could help prevent collisions and crashes, which is something we are looking at.

Yet despite these eye-catching successes in creating generations of novel robots that go back as far as 1991, Murata is not in the business of making them.

We are not thinking of manufacturing robots, says Yuichi Kojima, senior vice president and deputy director of Murata’s technology and business development unit. Murata is a component maker, not a set maker, he says during the jam-packed press conference to introduce the cheerleaders.  These robots are concept models intended to deliver a message about Murata’s capabilities.

Behind the scenes

While big brand consumer electronics companies such as Apple, Sony and Samsung are household names around the world, this is not the case with the electronics component manufacturers – the companies that supply hundreds of different parts such as sensors, capacitors, inductors and filters in the millions to the Apples and Samsungs.

To get the word out on what it can do, Murata came up with the idea of showcasing its leading-edge products in a cute robot, and in 1991 it introduced the bicycling-riding Murata Boy. A second-generation version made its debut in 2005, and this was followed by Murata Girl, the unicycle-riding robot, in 2008.

Each unveiling has proved to be a media hit for the parts manufacturer, particularly the latest cheerleader robots.

In addition, to promote Murata‘s name and manufacturing skills, Yoshikawa has taken the robots to schools, where they have proved to be enormously popular.

We ask the students to write an essay on the experience, says Yoshikawa. And sometimes we get one saying how much the student would like to join Murata to work on robots. So our robots can work as a recruitment tool as well.

Source : Al Jazeera

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