Creeped out by Disney animatronics? Well, things are about to get real

We’re going to need to think of new dance moves. “Doing the robot” may soon lose its meaning, should Disney Research successfully develop robots that move just like people. And that’s precisely what the team responsible for the science behind the magic is currently working on: a “hybrid hydrostatic transmission and human-safe haptic telepresence robot.” In essence, this is a machine that moves like man, combining both fluid and air-filled lines to control movements. And because the robot provides high-quality haptic feedback to its human controller, the man behind the machine won’t have to make any jerky movements either, allowing for all-around smooth and seamless motion.

Disney’s goal is to create a bot that more or less replicates the moves of its puppet master, who sees everything through the camera eyes of a robot. This means that when you go to Disney Land and see Mickey Mouse in costume, it won’t be a human inside the suit, sweating up a storm — rather, it could be a robot. And you’d never know the difference.

“We have developed new rotary actuators using rolling-diaphragm cylinders which provide high torque density,” the Disney Research team wrote, “and allow the creation of a new high-performance 10-DOF humanoid robot.” And because “the operator is visually immersed in the robot’s physical workspace,” the feedback loop is continuous for both the robot and its controller.

In a recent video released by the research team, a robot is shown playing a xylophone, cracking an egg (after delicately picking it up), threading a needle, and catching a balloon. Please put any thoughts of Five Nights at Freddy’s away.

“The current hydraulic robot offers incredibly smooth and fast motion, while maintaining backdrivability and bidirectional force reflection, allowing safe interaction with people, and the handling of delicate objects,” the researchers said of these impressive capabilities.

These new capabilities are more than just gimmicks, Disney says. Rather, the new robot could help better understand human-robot interactions of the future. “The transmission provides our robot with incredibly smooth and fast motion, while also allowing life-like interaction with people and the handling of delicate objects,” says Jessica Hodgins, vice president at Disney Research and a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon. “For now, the robot is remotely controlled by a human operator, but we would expect the same level of mechanical performance once the motions are automated.”

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