Robot skiers race in PyeongChang, but they’re not at Olympic level just yet

Robot soccer is now a thing, and robot sumo wrestling is also building a fan base. Now it’s robot skiing’s turn.

The sport does exactly what it says on the tin, attaching skis to robots and sending them hurtling off down a slope. The first event of its kind took place in South Korea on Monday at a resort close to PyeongChang, the site of this month’s Winter Olympics.

Eight humanoid robots built by local tech firms and universities faced off in a contest that saw each competitor career down an 80-meter slalom course. The steep ski run demanded precision zigzag maneuvers, though sadly most robots displayed a lot more zig than zag. But top marks for trying.

The sensor-laden contraptions apparently had the ability to make turns and control their own speed autonomously, but most ended up skiing straight into the obstacles and tumbling over. The poor performances were put down to the record low temperatures playing havoc with the robots’ on-board computers, according to the Korea Herald.

But the efforts are still great fun to watch, with our favorite maneuver made at the 43-second mark in this video when one of the robots clips a gate, performs an elegant 180-degree turn, and proceeds down the course backwards. In fact, it turned out to be one of the best performances of the day.

The winning robot, built by Mini Robot Corp. from Yeonsu near Seoul, stands at 125 centimeters and weighs 95 pounds (43 kg). Team leader Sam Kim said reaction speed is key for the skiing robots, with each one having to “quickly process the vision data it receives and adjust its motor movements accordingly, fast enough to make a turn.” Unfortunately most of them couldn’t.

The robotic skiing contest was organized by South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Commerce in collaboration with the Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement as part of a strategy to showcase local technology during the Winter Olympics. It’s just a shame, then, that the biting cold ruined the event for many of the robots, though such difficulties also demonstrate the kind of environmental challenges faced by engineers and developers.

Other robot-based initiatives during the Games include multilingual robot guides to help visitors, drinks-serving robots, and self-driving machines for cleaning floors at some of the venues. On the more artistic side, visitors can also interact with a wall-painting robot capable of creating elaborate murals on request.

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