Friday, March 16, 2012

It stands a little over a meter tall and has an uncanny and rather unnerving resemblance to a small child, the iCub is a European project aimed at helping researchers steal a march on rivals.

That iCub looks like a small child is no coincidence. The open-source robot, paid in part from European Union funds, is designed to learn in the same way a human child does, through interacting with its environment.

To that end, says Professor Giorgio Metta of Genoa’s Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, the robot has tactile hands, “that can be controlled independently, it has eyes that move independently,” before adding: “We have given it a set of features that are unique for interaction and manipulation, rather than just being able to walk.”

It has 53 motors that move the head, arms and hands, waist, and legs. It can see and hear, and has a sense of its own body configuration as well as its movement. The robot has sensorized skin so it can detect when it is touched.

Results from the research robot, and there are about 20 of the robots in existence, are shared among researchers.

Unlike a three-year old, the robot, which can crawl on its own, is connected to the rest of the world via a large “umbilical” cord that provides it with power.

So why does it look like a baby? “The idea,” says Professor Metta, “was to have a robot that can be used for research not just by roboticists. Having a robot that can be used for human-robot interaction, but is sophisticated enough to be used by control people that like to have lots of degrees of freedom. Combining all these requirements we ended up with a robot that is pretty small, still complex enough to manipulate objects, that has vision and lots of other sensors.”