Student creates incredible, balancing mini humanoid

Second-year CS major Chris Farrell has had a love for science and robotics all of his life. His interest is now blossoming itself into a form College of Computing professor Mike Stillman calls “perhaps one of the most capable mini humanoids in the world today.”

That mini humanoid is a miniature robot the size of a large toy that is designed to replicate human motion. The two are currently working on it in the Humanoid Robotics Lab located in the College of Computing Building.

Farrell calls the robot Kai. It is between one to two feet tall and has several unique abilities. There are black modules around its joints allowing it a great range of motion.

“It can also balance itself. If you push it, it’ll push back,” Farrell said. Kai is no slouch either. “It can lift up to three kilograms and still balance itself.”

Stillman describes its balancing feature as “the fanciest thing it can do, really.” Kai can punch its arms out sideways and forwards.

Two lights, blue and red, adorn its chest. The blue light monitors its voltage while the red light is currently only for aesthetic purposes. Farrell hopes to eventually get the red light to monitor Kai’s current state.

Kai is semi-autonomous, meaning while it can move on its own, it still needs human input. A human controller gives it commands to follow through a wireless joystick that looks remarkably like a PlayStation controller. Kai then does the rest. Its independence is a work in progress, with Farrell who is “hoping to increase the autonomy of the robot.” This is where Stillman comes in; he is working with Farrell to help improve Kai’s artificial intelligence.

Currently their venture is primarily focused on research. However, Farrell and Stillman both agree there is a great marketing potential for entertainment value. After they work out the kinks in replicating humanoid motion, the two plan on entering Kai into a Robo soccer league.

“We have our own RoboCup team actually,” Stillman said. “We have participated in small size competition. This past year we’ve been involved in a humanoid league. The other robots were built on a platform but the robot Farrell designed. He made every aspect of it.”

Farrell admits he hopes that humanoid robots will be able to compete with real life soccer players on the world stage by 2050.

Even if Kai enters the robot soccer league, Farrell’s work with it is not yet done. It has no definitive completion date.

“It’s not like Robocop. There’s no such thing as fully operational. In Robocop, they couldn’t really do anything to make it any more awesome. Here, it is a continuous affair. There are always additions possible,” Stillman said. Any major upgrades, however, are still a long time away.

Farrell’s short term goals are to get a more humanlike walk from Kai and to further improve its balance. To help prepare Kai for its soccer aspirations, Farrell and Stillman plan to implement an object recognition system to help it differentiate between the ball, referee and players. Kai, of course, will be a player and not a referee.

Farrell has also had plenty of help from his father. The two of them co-created a company in Maine called Farrell Robotics. Where does he plan to go after graduating? “More research,” Farrell said. “Probably graduate school and obtaining a PhD. I’ll probably be staying here a long time.”