Maybe it will make me breakfast?
That was one young audience member’s reaction to seeing seven Hubo robots dance on stage at Drexel University on Monday. The presentation — put on by Drexel’s Department of Engineering in partnership with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) Hubo Lab to kick of National Engineers Week — is not just a first for Philadephia, it’s the first time so many humanoid robots have taken the stage at once in the United States, say organizers.
The event was led by the celebrated Dr. Youngmoo Kim, associate professor and assistant dean of media technologies in the College of Engineering and director of the Music and Entertainment Technology Lab.
While the “Hubo family,” as Kim called them during the exhibition, is not quite ready to make anyone breakfast, the Drexel graduate-level robotics engineers who work with the Korean technology demonstrated to a crowd of K-12 and Drexel students that the four foot, three inch (1.3 meter) tall robots could shake hands, withstand a shove from a four-year-old, perform tai chi and dance to a beat.
Aside from a few minor misses — like when Jaemi neglected to turn to shake hands with Dean of the College of Engineering Joseph Hughes — all seven Hubos performed surprisingly smoothly. Still, the engineers who work on them say that functions like balancing and walking are some of the most difficult to train the robots to do and Jaemi, in particular, has seen its share of disasters.
“If you look at Jaemi, you’ll see that her shell is cracked. She’s fallen off the stage before,” said Alex Alspach, a B.S./M.S. student who works with the robots. “As Dr. Kim was saying, we’ve learned how to even manufacture the pieces here… We fixed Hubo in 60 days after falling off the stage.”
“She lost her head before,” added Youngbum Jun, a Ph.D student at Drexel whose been working with the Hubo robots for three years.
The seven robots currently reside at Drexel thanks, in part, to two multi-million dollar grants from the National Science Foundation. The first, a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) Program, brought the first robot, named Jaemi Hubo, to Drexel from Korea in 2009. Led by Dr. Paul Oh, the head of the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department, engineers in Drexel’s Autonomous Systems Lab became the only U.S. institution to have full-access to an adult-sized humanoid robot.
The second, awarded by the NSF in August 2010, is a $6 million Major Research Infrastructure (MRI) grant to build on Drexel’s initial research on Jaemi by funding a Drexel-led group of institutions to conduct further robotics research on six additional Hubos in the United States. Drexel is currently working on all seven robots, but this year MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech, the University of Southern California, Ohio State, Purdue and Penn will each receive a robot on which to do further humanoid robotics research.
Each individual Hubo robot has a minimum six-figure price tag attached to it. Dr. Kim said it was impossible to exactly quantify the cost of building a Hubo robots due to the countless hours of labor to build and maintain them, he estimated that the parts alone for each individual Hubo cost upwards of $300,000-$400,000.
“You can’t just go to Walmart and buy a robot,” Dr. Kim said. “This is really years in the making.”
The demonstration today was a milestone for Drexel’s robotics research on its own, but the goal is to develop Hubo to do far more than walk, shake hands, and dance. The goal is that the Hubo technology will be sensitive enough to make it a competent personal assistant. Maybe then that audience member will get the robot-made breakfast he was hoping for.