MENLO PARK, California: Move over, Siri, and make way for Motobot.
The Menlo Park-based research institute responsible for creating Apple’s digital personal assistant is now partnering with Yamaha Motor Co. to develop Motobot, a humanoid robot intended to beat one of the world’s fastest motorcycle racers.
In conjunction with a team from a local Yamaha research lab, SRI International’s robotics department is building Motobot, which they intend by the end of 2017 to exceed nine-time world champion MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi’s best lap time. That news came during an announcement of the Yamaha-SRI partnership at the CES Robotics Conference in Las Vegas earlier last month.
It may sound like – and may partly be – a publicity stunt, but since late 2014, SRI has been working with Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley, both of which have offices close to one another in Menlo Park, on developing a robot that could help increase rider safety. Consider it a high-tech diagnostic tool for motorcycles that just happens to look like a cyborg.
Also, consider it a bit of kismet.
When Yamaha called on SRI for help in late 2014, the Stanford research offshoot just happened to be proposing a similar system to the Pentagon, one that would become Darpa’s Alias program, an in-cockpit automation system intended to augment rather than replace the human pilot. It took just eight months from the time SRI signed on to help build Motobot for the team to deliver a working prototype to the Tokyo Motor Show last fall.
“The idea of having a humanoid robot operating a system designed to be used by flesh-and-bone humans without modifying that system at all was at the forefront of our thinking,” said Thomas Low, associate director of robotics at SRI.
Motobot allows motorcycle developers to test vehicles at their extremes without having to worry about the safety of a rider. Unlike a crash-test dummy that tests the impact of a collision on a vehicle’s occupants, Motobot is designed to test the limits of an unmodified vehicle. In more than 300 tests thus far, Motobot has never caused a motorcycle to crash.
According to Motobot founder Hiroshi Saijou, besides safety improvements, the robot could stretch the limits of design and performance, possibly making motorcycles ride more smoothly even as they achieve faster speeds.
“If we can use robots, we can do more aggressive things,” said Saijou, chief executive officer and managing director of Yamaha Motor Ventures.
The team is looking far beyond just faster and safer motorbikes. When finalized, according to the researchers, the Motobot could be used to test agricultural and factory vehicles.
Yamaha has been making motorcycles since it was founded 60 years ago, but over the past 20 has moved into developing industrial robots and an unmanned helicopter system. SRI has been at the forefront of robotics research and development for the past 40 years, having been responsible for the first telerobotic surgery system and “Shakey,” the first mobile robot with the ability to perceive and reason about its surroundings.