UP is building robots
By Jo. Florendo B.
ASIMO of Honda, a walking humanoid, is considered the most
advanced robot in the world. It takes the shape of machines of
the future—those that approximate the human form and perform
tasks in ways no other form of machine can. UP’s robotics
expert, Dr. Manuel Ramos, says that the best kind of machine
that can exist in the human environment must also be walking on
two legs or be humanlike in form. Biped locomotion, a most
useful technology toward making the most efficient machines, is
therefore relentlessly pursued by many in robotics.
The output of UP robotics in the direction of the humanoid still
consists of the bare minimum—two legs and the ability to walk.
This is no small feat, however, since UP’s robotics laboratories
started from scratch and late. Yet their work is already on a
par with Asimo—which took Honda 20 years to make—when it comes
to the algorithms of walking or the calculations needed to
perform the seemingly simple, but in reality very complicated,
task of walking on just two feet.
At UP three of the 14 research laboratories at the Triple E
(Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Building
on the Diliman campus have been directly involved in—though not
confined to—making robots. They are the Instrumentation,
Robotics, and Control (IRC) Laboratory; the Yamatake Industrial
Control and Automation Laboratory (YICAL); and the Mobile
Robotics (Mobot) Laboratory. Established only in the 1990s, they
have made UP a thriving center for robotics development in the
Arms, legs, wheels, senses
At YICAL on the third floor of Triple E, there are rudimentary
metal legs, having wires still sticking out and rough edges.
Students in the laboratory are tracking the algorithms of human
walking so that the biped can use the data to function in
infinitely better ways than a walking doll.
But legs are not all the laboratories are making. Dr. Manuel
Ramos, the head, instructs a student to place small canisters at
random on a platform beside a PC and a cranelike machine. With a
simple command typed into the computer, the machine picks up
each of the canisters, then piles them in pyramid formation,
before returning each of them to their original position. The
mechatronic arm or “manipulator” is able to pinpoint images
captured by its camera, identify them as objects for picking up,
locate them, determine the manner and amount of force with which
to pick them up, decide how they are to be arranged, and then
move accordingly—all on its own.
Providing arms and legs with intelligence so that they can
perform commands are two projects of the Lab which have
applications for industrial automation. YICAL is also doing
research on building automation (as in automated functions of
building management), machine vision and data mining (as in
predicting power distribution over a certain area).
Two floors up, in the Mobot Lab, a knee-high “all-terrain” rover
is equipped with two cameras on its “head”. This humanlike
binocular vision allows the robot to have depth perception and
compute the distance of obstacles on its path and avoid them. A
computer installed inside the robot enables it to process the
images it receives from the cameras and allows remote control
from a Local Area Network (LAN) through its connection to the
Internet in wi-fi (wireless fidelity).
Lying on a shelf top is a smaller mobot (mobile robot) installed
with a car vacuum cleaner. Prof. Percival Magpantay, assisant
lab head, says its name is Charlean—it charges itself and its
task is to clean the floor on its own. Beside it lies a charger
to which it attaches when its batteries are running low.
Magpantay says an expensive commercial version of the robotic
vacuum cleaner exists. He says that built from scratch, with
some parts available, surprisingly, on Raon, the Mobot Lab
invention cannot cost more than P7,000. The price can go down
further if the unit is mass-produced.
The third robotics laboratory was established and is headed by
Dr. Luis Sison, who did high-level research on biosensors at
Berkeley in 2003. Established in 1991, the first to be created
among the three robotics laboratories, the IRC Lab now focuses
on biomedical engineering, wireless sensor networks and
The laboratory’s thrust in biomedical engineering provides the
bridge to ferry the benefits of electronics engineering to
health, not through the creation of cyborgs, but through more
practical means such as medical instrumentation and control. For
example, the IRC is developing devices to monitor the patient’s
“vital signs” with communication occurring between a transmitter
worn by the patient and a central monitoring or base station.
These devices enable the patient to go around while his or her
health condition is being monitored by the cellular-phone
One of the IRC’s projects on wireless sensor networks will
automate monitoring work in wildlife and agriculture; energy
conservation, surveillance, security, and vibration control in
buildings and other types of infrastructure. Having built sensor
nodes for the network, a team will soon deploy them to monitor a
habitat of birds in UP Diliman. Because data is transmitted via
radio, a person need not check the readings of each installed
sensor. The network “self-organizes”: each “node” automatically
determines its relationship with the rest of the network.
In mechatronics, IRC has created a simulator for active mass
damping, a technology to reduce the effects of vibration in
buildings by applying an amount of mass, for example, on the
stories of a building. Through the machine, students have been
able to devise various schemes for vibration control.
Walking in the big league
Admittedly in its infancy, UP robotics is nonetheless making an
impact locally and internationally. For the past two years the
Mobot Lab has emerged winner in the Microcontroller Applications
and Design Contest, a local contest organized by the Institute
of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Philippines, for the
category that applies microcontrollers—single-chip computers
commonly found in “intelligent” household appliances—to useful
automated tasks. Mobot’s office delivery robot won this contest
in 2004 and Charlean won this year.
Projects of IRC students took the second, third and fourth
places in the Open Design category.
Runner-up to Charlean was a portable device that monitors the
breathing of patients with sleep apnea disorder. In third place
was a data acquisition system that uses wireless transceivers to
transmit biosignals to a PC.
Mr. Lontok is a University of Santo Tomas journalism graduate
and is taking MA at the University of the Philippines. He has
been writing for UP’s System Information Office for the past