Robotic basketball player provides Toyota with a route into the future for high precision applications in manufacturing
At a time when the motor industry is going through a period of churn like it has never witnessed in its entire history, it would seem that its participants would be focused solely on such technology as electric powertrains, alternative fuels, autonomy, connectivity and active safety.
Toyota Motor Corporation is highly active in all of these areas but is also delving deeply into its reserves of both funds and resources to develop robotic expertise in the field of basketball!
Whilst this might seem a little tangential to its main business interests, the huge corporation never does anything without good reason and the humanoid robotic basketball ace is very likely to be the foundation for advanced manufacturing technology for the future at the Japanese car manufacturer.
An AI Challenge
Known as “CUE”, the robot athlete can trace its roots to an event hosted by the Toyota Engineering Society in 2017. The theme of the event was “Absolute beginners take up the challenge of developing AI from scratch.” AI (Artificial Intelligence) enables systems to make decisions and carry out tasks using human-like intelligence using learning algorithms. When mulling over the project, the team decided to develop a robot that could use AI to calculate the distance and trajectory to a basketball hoop and score 100 percent of its shots from the basketball pitch.
With no experience of developing robots or AI, the team members were truly starting from scratch but nonetheless managed to develop the robot to take reasonable goal shots. By March 2018, they were performing demonstrations at events, including during the half time interval of a professional game at the Alvark basketball team’s stadium in Tokyo. The performance was met with an enthusiastic public response that wasn’t overlooked by Toyota’s own talent spotters.
Development work on CUE
Having seen the potential of the original CUE robot, Toyota’s management gave the project the credibility of a substantial budget and the team overall management of its execution. From the light-hearted demonstration of the original robot at a sporting venue, the CUE2 project was born.
There was just half a year between CUE’s debut and the unveiling of CUE2. In six months, the sturdy box on which CUE had stood had disappeared, leaving CUE2 to stand unsupported on its own two feet. But there was more: while CUE had only taken shots within the free-throw area, CUE2 was able to stand outside the three-point line.
According to one of the team members, the longer the shot distance, the greater the influence of small errors in movement. CUE2 is unable to score if the shot motion errs by even a single degree.
In order to eliminate the foot stand that had characterised CUE, motors were made smaller and located inside CUE2’s body. Also, in order to enable CUE2 to throw the ball further, motor output was increased.
Such challenges proved difficult to overcome and the robot wasn’t fully ready when it was unveiled in November 2018, when it managed to score twice in a row but failed when moved further from the ring.
Other Toyota robot teams were drafted in and provided advice to the CUE development team as well as providing expertise in building circuit boards, creating the wiring―which extended to 600 meters in total―and producing the resin that would be used for CUE’s external appearance.
The co-operative efforts resulted in CUE3 being unveiled five months later in April 2019. Tasked with scoring goals once more at the Alvark Tokyo stadium, CUE3 initially failed to land a single shot before the team placed the robot at a seemingly impossible long distance, where CUE3 entered its shooting stance and released its long throw. The ball described a beautiful arc before landing flush in the net and giving extended life to the project.
With the sudden leap in the robot’s abilities, Toyota began to make sure that everyone knew about the success of its engineers and it wasn’t long before it drew the attention of those outside the world of manufacturing, robotics or even basketball.
Guinness World Records saw the potential for a new record and set the team a challenge. To enter the record books, the robot would have to score at least five consecutive throws at the basketball net.
For a humanoid robot to throw a basketball, a variety of technological problems must be overcome. For example, the trajectory of the ball changes according to how the ball is placed in and how it leaves the robot’s hand; the force of each throw results in minor changes to the robot’s position; and, even when attempting to throw an identical shot, the supply current and power is liable to change.
By facing up to each of these problems and implementing improvements, the team set about modifying CUE3 with the capability, technology and endurance to score more than 1000 consecutive shots.
The main change the team made in preparation for the record attempt was to re-engineer the arm and stance mechanics to enable the robot to make consecutive throws. Previously, CUE3 would drop its arm after shooting as part of its follow-through. Now, CUE3 would have to immediately start preparing for the next shot after the ball had left its hand. An important rule in the record attempt is that the only assistance the robot should receive is having the ball placed in position ready for the shot.
When the day arrived, ball pressures, shooting distances and the height of the basket were rigorously checked and CUE3 was ready to make its first throw.
The opening five throws were a success and enough in itself to set a Guinness World Record. It continued to throw successful shots and soon 200 goals were achieved, matching the best it had performed in tests.
Now it was entering uncharted territory and after 6 hours and 35 minutes of continuous throwing, testing the endurance of the robot as well as the adjudicator and Toyota engineers, CUE3 entered the record books with 2020 consecutive basketball free throws.
In just over half a year, the team had moved CUE3 on from scoring 1 shot in every 30 with a minute’s preparation time for each shot to achieving unerring accuracy for over 2000 shots every 12 seconds.
Player in Motion
More than two years after the CUE project was initiated, the team was enjoying the success of a world record attempt and developing the fourth generation of its basketball robot, now known as CUE4.
The new challenge was for the robot to perform a “three point shootout”, a routine that requires it to make five successful shots from five different positions meaning CUE4 would have to add mobility to its repertoire.
In order to realise swift movement, the power and communication cables previously connected to the robot needed to be eliminated and it was necessary to develop and install a small, powerful specialised motor.
According to the Toyota team, CUE4 required a total revision of everything, from the sensors and internal framework through to the AI algorithms.
Already used to a string of successes with the robot, the team took CUE4 to a basketball match in Hokkaido, where the three point shootout was performed successfully before a sell-out stadium.
The R&D budget Toyota is pouring into producing a string of basketball playing robots is no folly. Payback may still be a long way into the future but by developing free-movement robotics, precise control and advanced AI, there’s no doubt that Toyota will be harvesting the rewards for decades to come.
Humanoid Robots at Toyota
The CUE project isn’t Toyota’s first excursion into the world of humanoid robots. The company has long been researching many different aspects of robots both as fundamental science and in manufacturing applications.
One such robot is the T-HR3, a humanoid robot capable of flexible movements that mirror the actions of a remote human operator using a wearable control system.
According to T-HR3’s Development Team Leader, Tomohisa Moridaira, the future will see a high demand for robots that make effective use of many joints to accomplish delicate tasks in the way that humans do and that can operate safely even when they are in contact with the world around them.
The T-HR3 has redundant degrees of freedom, giving it alternative “routes” to achieving the same end as well as a certain degree of joint failure tolerance.
“Having redundant degrees of freedom allows for greater diversity in how the robot can move, including allowing it to scoop up from under an object or to take it from the side,” he says.
With its remote control system, where the robot mimics the motion of the controller, the potential applications are vast for such technology.