(Yonhap Feature) UNIST building AVATAR system for teleoperated robots

An avatar refers to an image that represents a computer user in online games and chat rooms.

However, the term avatar has taken on a new meaning in the robotics field. It stands for an interActive and intuitiVe control interfAce for a TeleoperAted Robot (AVATAR) system, designed to transport human presence to a remote location in real time.

At a lab of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in Ulsan, some 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, a humanoid robot named Avatar is operated by an AVATAR system.

It is a robot that is remotely controlled by a human operator from a distance equipped with a wearable interface, including a head-mounted display, wired gloves and boots. The devices measure the human’s voice, posture, arm, hand and finger movements and even facial expression, and transports them to the robot in real time.

Avatar (R), a robot developed by professor Bae Joon-bum and his team, and its operator (L) pose for the camera in a lab at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology on April 28, 2023.

The robot, which is some 150 centimeters tall and has a square screen face with eyes and a mouth, can say “Hello” to visitors and grab small objects like a hand drill as a human operates the robot from the master seat.

At the same time, dual cameras on the robot’s head provide visual information to the operator, while sensors on the robot’s hands provide vibration feedback to the fingertips of the operator’s haptic gloves.

UNIST’s Avatar robot finished sixth at the final of the ANA Avatar Xprize competition held in California last year, marking the highest ranking by a South Korean remote-controlled robot.

At the competition, Avatar carried out complex tasks, such as solving jigsaw puzzles, shaking hands, toasting opponents and holding objects. It also had to circumvent a narrow path filled with tricky obstacles.

“Robots are still unable to perform sophisticated tasks. When they hold an object, they have to feel the weight or texture. You need a lot of sensors on their hands,” Bae Joon-bum, a professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering who led the UNIST team at the Xprize tournament, said during a press event held Friday.

“This pair of gloves is full of a variety of sensors for effective remote operation, sensing motions of finger joints and pressure,” he said.

Avatar (L), a robot developed by professor Bae Joon-bum and his team, and its operator (2nd from R) pose for the camera at a lab of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology on April 28, 2023.

The professor, who founded the startup Meligo with his students to commercialize the AVATAR robotics system, said the teleoperated robot represents the remarkable potential of AVATAR technology that helps address possible human challenges and man-made disasters.

“We keep studying this to expand its horizons to the military and the disaster management sector,” he said. “And we’re planning to upgrade the technology, using artificial intelligence, to make the robot imitate the human controller in a more precise way.”

Professor Bae Joon-bum (L) hands a drill to a robot named Avatar at a lab of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology on April 28, 2023.

Bae’s team is one of the research and development projects funded by UNIST, a state-run science technology institute in South Korea.

UNIST encourages its professors and students to start businesses from their labs as part of its long-term plan to create an academy-community, industry-academy cooperative network. The school has set aside an annual 2.7 billion won for its 52 startups that have been founded over the recent three weeks.

“I think we are obliged to contribute to the nation and the local community,” UNIST President Lee Yong-hoon said. “We are working on the AI, semiconductor and carbon-free sectors to meet rising demand.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency