N.B.: Some stories don’t pass the careful muster of editors, and the below article on a robot called Rezero is one of them. Having failed to get it published on the wire, I offer it to readers here instead.
Whirring gently in the cavernous courtyard of a Swiss university stands a three-foot tall machine doing its best to defy the law of gravity.
Passing students smile and point as the robot succeeds in balancing its 30-pound frame on a sphere the size of a basketball.
Then, with a gentle push, it begins to glide across the stone floor using small electric motors to roll the ball. All the while sophisticated sensors measure the robot’s position 160 times a second to ensure it doesn’t topple and smash to the ground.
What appears at first to be no more than a circus act is in fact a revolution in robotics that experts say could finally make robots a commonplace feature in homes and public spaces from toys to little helpers.
By using a single ball the robot can move in any direction and turn on the spot. And unlike droids with two legs or wheels, the device is stable even when it speeds around corners carrying heavy loads.
Two students at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology put together the robot they dubbed 'Rezero' for a demonstration
It’s not the only or even the first robot to move this way, but according to its Swiss designers ‘Rezero’ is the fastest and most agile of them all.
“I’d like to compare it with an ice dancer” says Simon Doessegger, patting the robot as it purrs obediently by his side during a recent interview.
Doessegger is part of a 13-strong team at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology that spent eight months building the robot as an undergraduate project partly funded by The Walt Disney Co.
The Los Angeles-based entertainment giant says the research grant “is just one example of Disney’s support of education programs around the world.” Asked about possible uses in Disney’s movies and theme parks spokesman Michael Griffin said it was “too early to speculate how the great work of these creative students might be used.”
The same applies to a project the company is sponsoring at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where the first ballbot was created four years ago, he said.
Doesegger likewise plays down any talk of commercial applications in the near future, despite the fact that Rezero drew large crowds at the world’s largest robotics fair in Munich, Germany, earlier this year.
Children in particular delighted in the robot’s near-human reactions when it was programmed to follow them around, keep a set distance or respond to a playful prod.
Carnegie Mellon engineering professor Ralph Hollis, whose work along with that of Masaaki Kumagai at Japan’s Tohoku Gakuin University provided the inspiration for the Swiss project, said it was precisely that kind of docile, compliant behavior which most surprised him when he first built a ballbot in 2006.
“You can push it around with just a single finger,” Hollis said, adding that CMU plans to equip their robot with arms and test it in crowd situations soon to see whether it can handle the grace and dexterity required of, say, a cocktail waitress.
In the long term they might also be used as household helpers, carrying things around and preparing simple meals for their owners, said Hollis.
One problem all ballbots still face is that when their power is shut off, they fall over. And climbing stairs is one hurdle they’ll likely never take.
But on flat surfaces, Hollis, Kumagai and Doessegger agree, ballbots are better placed to move around human environments than either bipedal or large, wheeled robots.
The Swiss team has already created a smooth fabric shell for its robot that makes it look a bit like a large bowling pin. Computer mock-ups show alternative casings, including as mobile displays, tourist guides and even outlandish vehicles large enough for a single person to scoot around on piggy-back style.
Rezero project: http://www.rezero.ethz.ch/project_en.html
Carnie Mellon ballbot project: http://www.msl.ri.cmu.edu/projects/ballbot/