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29 Jan 2018

Meet Motobot, the robot that can race a motorbike

Since late-2014, Yamaha Motor Corp and California-based research institute SRI International have been working on Motobot, an autonomous robot which can ride motorbikes.

However, Motobot isn't any ordinary robot and is looking to compete with the likes of nine-time Grand Prix champion and legendary racer Valentino Rossi to earn its stripes.

Here's more on how Yamaha and SRI International managed the incredible feat.

In context

Motobot: The biker robot challenging Valentino Rossi
Motobot engineers faced multiple challenges developing the robot


Motobot engineers faced multiple challenges developing the robot

Motobot's success, however, did not come without major hurdles.

According to Hiroshi Saijou, the Motobot project lead at Yamaha, there were several "major" and two "catastrophic" crashes during the course of development.

However, nobody has been injured so far and the crashes took place in safe, human-controlled environments.

Crashes apart, getting Motobot to race at over 200km/h was no simple task either.

Driving skills

Engineers had to figure out what made a great rider

Brian Foster, the Motobot project lead at SRI International, said that by using an unmodified bike, the team also learnt what made a great rider.

Motobot 2.0 has to be attached to a Yamaha YZF-R1M and its hands have to physically control the throttle.

Engineers thus had to figure out how riders "sense the limits of traction, optimise power output of a bike" etc.

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The greater the speed, the greater the difficulty

"The higher the speed, the greater the requirement on sensing, computing, positioning and more. In short, the more the speed, the greater the technical challenge," said Hiroshi Saijou, CEO and managing director at Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley.

Motobot uses technology different from autonomous cars


Motobot uses technology different from autonomous cars

Being specifically designed for race tracks, Motobot doesn't have to rely on lasers and cameras which autonomous cars use to avoid collisions in public roads.

Motobot instead relies on simpler technologies like GPS and inertial measurement units which are used to control drones and satellites.

The biggest challenge was teaching Motobot how to balance the bike at lean angles from 0-50 degrees, said Foster.


Motobot's algorithms needed quite a bit of work

The balance controller apart, Motobot's path-following algorithm also took some work according to Foster.

For Motobot to function, the path-following algorithm had to function flawlessly in a variety of extreme conditions such as high-speed straight lines, hairpin bends, sweeping turns etc.

Another major challenge was to identify performance limits without crashing which required constant and precise risk management.


Motobot version 3.0 coming up soon

Motobot is currently in its second version, and has significant improvements over the first.

Designed to go faster than the first version, Motobot 2.0 has already ridden a bike at over 200km/h, around 50km/h faster than the first version's fastest speed.

While the Motobot 2.0 has failed to beat Valentino Rossi's lap time, Yamaha and SRI researchers are "actively working on Motobot 3.0".


Yamaha and SRI International hopes Motobot will inspire important research

While Motobot can't walk yet, the future of Motobot might be on two legs instead of wheels.

Yamaha and SRI International are hopeful that Motobot will inspire research into robots which can integrate with other vehicles.

Deploying robots on extant, unmodified vehicles is a much more cost-effective way to achieve automation than creating autonomous vehicles.

Such low-cost technology could significantly benefit developing countries.

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