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Business news
Local firm leading Russian robot race
08.01.2003 15:08

The robots, ARNE and ARNEA, are male and female. Each is 123 centimeters tall and weighs 61 kilograms They are capable of walking independently and avoiding obstacles, can distinguish and remember objects and colors, can follow up to 40 separate commands, and can even talk. The androids run on electrical power, using wireless accumulators, allowing them to work independently for up to one hour.

Unlike their human counterparts, there are no obvious physical differences between the male and female androids - apart from their color - though the company intends to make further amendments to the robots' appearance in the near future, according to New Era General Director Gennady Lokotkov.

The project was launched two years ago by New Era in cooperation with students from the St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University.

"It is the only project developing androids, i.e., robots that resemble human beings, in Russia now," said Alexander Yakovlev, head of the Robot Technical Sector for New Era. "We copy human attributes - our robot moves and behaves like a human. In the future, our robots could be used in households to care for children or elderly people, or for security purposes, working in dangerous areas."

While android robots are rare, mainly because of the small number of applications suitable for them, other kinds of robots, such as manipulators (a moving seizing hand, a carriage or a cube on wheels) or automatons, are widely used in various industry and space projects.

The most important tasks facing the project now, Yakovlev said, are the enhancement of the walking algorithm (to make the robot steadier and not fall back at the slightest nudge), development of hand functions (to teach the robot how to seize and hold objects), the upgrading of sight and, the most difficult task of all, the development of artificial intelligence.

The project is funded by the company using financing from its main fields of activity - producing electrical equipment. New Era was created in 1993 out of the ashes of Era, a Soviet-era enterprise that manufactured and repaired electrical equipment for the ships of Baltic Fleet.

In 1996, New Era received a two-year EBRD loan, which, according to Lokotkov, helped to modernize production. After that, it began cooperation with Russia's major ship-building enterprises (which account for 22 percent of all company's sales), gas and oil companies, aluminum plants, pulp and paper mills and the Railroad Ministry.

In June, New Era signed a six-year, $200-million contract with Gazprom, under which it will supply middle-voltage units and components for compressor stations. Another large contract is for electrical equipment for an atomic-power station in Iran, while it has recently manufactured and installed electrical equipment for local water utility Vodokanal.

The company had $16.2 million in sales and $3.2 million in profits in 2002, and is planning to up sales to the $30-million mark in 2003.

Lokotkov said creating an android robot is not as quixotic as it might seem, as the development process can lead to the creation of new technologies.

"It will be easy to apply technologies, developed in the process of creating a robot, in energy, military or other sectors in the future," Lokotkov said.

But, for now, ARNE and ARNEA are only shown at international conferences and exhibitions - their debut appearance in in Russia was during the St. Petersburg Navy Exhibition in late June.

"Soon, robots will be part of people's everyday lives - they will be easy to buy and use, and will be treated as living domestic appliances. It's important to develop people's psychology regarding their attitude towards these new participants in our life," he added.

While ARNE and ARNEA are the only android projects in Russia, there are a number of similar projects abroad, mostly in Japan and the United States. According to Yakovlev, Japan's Honda has been working on an android project for 15 years, while Sony produces the robot-dog AIBO and human-like robot SDR (Sony Dream Robot), a 30-centimeter-high-toy, which walks, talks, remembers faces and avoids obstacles.

In July, New Era competed in RoboCup, the World Robot Soccer Cup, in Padova, Italy, taking 11th place. Companies including Sony, Fujitsu and Sun, took part in the competition, 183 teams in all, with 64 in a Simulator League, played by computer programs simulating robots' movements. The New Era team, also represented in this league, was the only Russian team in the competition.

Other leagues had robots on wheels or four legs.

"Some of the players look like small iron cubes on wheels, while others are just 40 centimeters tall. They recently started the android league, although the requirements are very basic - it's considered excellent if a robot kicks a ball, or balances on one foot," Yakovlev said.

RoboCup organizers are hoping that, by 2050, a robot squad will be able to challenge a human soccer team.

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