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Honda's Asimo robot bows out but finds new life

Underlying tech applied to physical therapy and self-driving vehicles

Asimo runs during a public event at Honda's showroom in Tokyo in 2006.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Honda Motor has stopped development of its humanoid Asimo robot, a symbol of Japan's advances in robotics technology along with Sony's Aibo robot dog.

The automaker now plans to put the technology behind Asimo to use in areas such as physical therapy and self-driving vehicles.

The original Asimo appeared in 2000 as the first robot to walk on two legs. But development started back in 1986. That was the year the automaker opened a research facility in Saitama Prefecture to begin research on what would become Asimo.

During that time, Honda also started research on the HondaJet small business aircraft and fuel cell batteries. Asimo, however, was the only project never to make it to the commercialization stage.

With no payday on the horizon, Honda has decided to end the project. Still, Asimo will live on as Honda seeks to develop products that make use of the robot's underlying technology.

The robot was renowned for its strong balance that allowed it to walk like a human. The most-recent model, the seventh iteration, appeared in 2011, measuring 130cm tall with a weight of 48kg and a walking speed of 9kph. It maintains balance through the use of multiple sensors that analyze the surroundings.

Asimo has been Honda's iconic product since its debut in 2000.   © Reuters

This technology survives in Honda's motorcycles and cars. Several Asimo engineers have been tapped to develop self-driving technology using their knowledge of sensors and artificial intelligence. The automaker also unveiled a self-balancing motorcycle at a U.S. electronics show last year that automatically stabilizes through minute steering adjustments.

Honda is also developing a rehabilitation device that uses Asimo's walking techniques to support physical therapy. A motor moves the legs of elderly or disabled patients forward and helps them efficiently push off the ground. It is seeking medical approval for the device around the world.

The company sells a lawn-mowing robot that is available globally, and which can navigate wide, uneven surfaces on its own. After the Fukushima meltdowns in 2011, some suggested that Asimo technology could be used to perform dangerous tasks at nuclear power plants, so Honda created a robot capable of inspecting the insides of these facilities.

Honda's management plan through 2030, released last year, not only focuses on mobility but also on energy systems and robotics. The team at the heart of Asimo was recently reborn as R&D Center X, which will be in charge of the company's robotics strategy.

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