Toyota's T-HR3 robot mimics human movement

This third-generation humanoid shows off a suite of joint sensors for smooth, flexible movement.

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Toyota is showing off its latest robot, a humanoid called T-HR3, at the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo this week. The robot itself appears to be just as uncharismatic as its name, but that's not the point. The important feature is the underlying technology that allows the robot to mimic human movement with excellent flexibility and balance.

The robot was built specifically to develop and test technology called a "torque servo module," which comprises motors, reduction gears, and torque sensors. There are 29 of these modules in the robot's joints, plus 16 of them in a special chair, called the Master Maneuvering System, which is like a giant remote control for the person operating the robot.

The system is equipped with motion and force sensors in the feet, so the operator's movement translates directly to the robot's joints for synchronized movement between a human and the T-HR3. The operator also wears a head-mount display that is connected to the robot's built-in cameras, so the user can see whatever the robot sees, in 3D and realtime.

The robot was created by Toyota's Partner Robot Family, a division with a goal to "evolve the technology of industrial robots such that they can be applied to the advanced technology of automobiles, IT and other areas." The T-HR3 is considered a third-generation humanoid. Previous generations played instruments to test the precise positioning of joints and pre-programmed movements. Now, the group's latest humanoid is a platform meant to safely assist humans with mobility challenges.

It lacks AI, but keeping a human in the loop is useful for many situations where it's not safe or practical for a person to walk around. In space exploration, for example, an operator could sit in NASA's research facility while "walking" around Mars. It could also be used for military and disaster relief, but Toyota's focus appears to be using robots as medical and home assistants.

Toyota's engineers made important progress with the remote maneuvering system and especially the joint modules. However, the timing of the release is a bit unfortunate. T-HR3's yoga moves are cute, but earlier this month Boston Dynamics set the bar way too high when its Atlas robot casually did a back flip and nailed the landing. T-HR3, by comparison, is practical, but underwhelming.

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