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Alphabet’s secretive Schaft Inc shows off new bipedal robot in Tokyo

TechCrunch TechCrunch 8/04/2016 Devin Coldewey

There’s a new bot in town (Tokyo, specifically), and while it might not be as cute as Nao, as creepy as Spot and BigDog, or as anthropomorphic as Atlas, it might be more practical than all of them. It walks on two legs, but not like a man, or even a bear. This one, designed by Alphabet-owned Schaft Inc, has its own uniquely robotic form of locomotion.

The nameless robot strutted onstage at the New Economic Summit in Japan, joining Schaft co-founder Yuto Nakanishi and facing a delighted crowd. A video then played showing robots like the one on stage but different — but all with a few things in common.

Most important has to be the walking system. Rather than imitate a human gait, which is a remarkably complex controlled-falling affair, these robots have rigid legs that slide up and down like rails.

This allows them to lift without bending, while joints at the top allow them to be canted in or out and “ankles” at the bottom provide stability on uneven terrain. Batteries and motors are be suspended between the legs, creating a naturally low center of gravity.

It appears to be a very effective way of getting around: the video shows robots navigating a forest floor, rocky beach, snowy field, and even the bane of ED209 and Daleks — stairs. In fact, one robot is shown cleaning the steps with Roomba-like whiskers on its feet as it climbs. Let’s see Atlas do that!

There’s also a clip of the robot repeatedly slipping on a metal bar placed under it by its human captors — but it keeps its feet under it with commendable alacrity. We’ll probably see this footage again when Skynet reminds us why we can’t be allowed to live.

None of the robots has arms, or any type of prehensile gripper. A barbell is attached to the top of one sturdy-looking prototype, so we know it lifts, but other than that, no cargo or manipulative capacity was shown. Either the robots aren’t designed for that, or this was simply more of a demonstration of the motive platform.

If this all sounds a little vague, that’s because there isn’t much specific information to go on. Schaft was acquired by Google in December 2013 and has been very quiet since, despite excelling in  DARPA’s Robotics Challenge. They don’t even have a website any more, and their operations and projects are closely guarded secrets within Alphabet’s X division.

All we have to go on are tweets from Tokyo-based robotics writer Tim Hornyak and Rakuten, and a statement issued by X to IEEE Spectrum. The statement? This “wasn’t a product announcement or indication of a specific product roadmap. The team was simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress.”

We’re reaching out to this stealthy robotics maker for more information, but if they’re as forthcoming as they’ve been for the last 3 years, don’t expect much. But we do expect to see more of this innovative robotics platform in the near future — it’s too cool to keep under wraps.

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