Last updated April 5, 2018 at 12:18 pm
The PyeongChang Winter Olympics had a hidden army of robots – and only some of them were rubbish.
The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics will go down in history for a range of reasons, one of which was its giant step forward in technology. From the opening ceremony featuring swarms of autonomous drones to an army of robots on duty, it was the Olympics which showed what technology was capable of.
And only some of it was a bit rubbish. In fact, most was pretty good.
The roboticised Olympics
The Olympics served as an opportunity to test 11 different kinds of robots, most which were used to enhance attendees’ experience.
These included serving drinks, guiding visitors to their destination (in four different languages), cleaning hallways and the press centre, and providing general entertainment like welcoming visitors at the airport, waving to crowds, or painting murals. The Olympics mascot was even turned into a robot, guiding people at the Main Stadium and dropping some sweet dance moves.
However there were two high profile robots.
On 11 December 2017, two robots joined the torch relay at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
The first was a small autonomous robot which carried the flame a short distance, before cutting a hole in a wall to pass the flame through to a human carrier.
For the second robot, rather than an autonomous or humanoid robot researchers built a ride-on robot, where a human rides and controls the robot using a wearable data device.
Things go downhill
However, we also saw robots attempt to fulfill the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” and they have a little way to go yet.
On a ski slope during the Games was the first ever Ski Robot Challenge, but instead of winning gold, $10,000 was on offer.
Eight teams lined up… and only 2 managed to finish the course.
The competition was designed with the International Ski Federation – robots had to be humanoids at least 50cm tall, able to stand on their own, and have sensors and movement which would allow them to navigate a course 80 metres long consisting of five gates on a beginners slope.
The fact that only 2 managed to complete the course didn’t diminish the charming sight of seeing robots dressed in children’s overalls, on skis, tackling the course.
And in fairness, coming from Australia and having only seen snow once, they’re probably still doing better than I would.
According to a newly published article in Science Robotics, for the robots heavier than 20kg, the power of their joints wasn’t sufficient to control the skis or their speed. Most fell after 3 gates when after their speed built too high.
Another reason for the low success rate was the challenge of detecting the gate flags. The robots would need to detect and track the flag from 20 metres away until they passed at high speed, with researchers finding that the onboard AI and vision system wasn’t able to keep up or maintain accuracy.
However these were the expected challenges, and engineers around the world are currently working on solutions to very similar problems.
It’s now up to Tokyo and Beijing – hosts of the next two Olympics – to top Korea’s efforts. All three hosts pledged to use robots extensively during their Olympics, and it’ll be an interesting opportunity to watch on the world stage how robots develop over the next four years.