The first weekend of December 2012 marked the Tokyo edition of Maker Faire, that science-fair-styled hangout for do-it-yourself techno-fetishists. This being Japan, highlights included everything from portable Geiger counters to anime-inspired robots both giant and tiny. Our personal favorite: Brave Robotics’ “Transform Robot 7.2,” the world’s first fully transforming remote controlled car. We spoke to creator Kenji Ishida for the inside scoop.
Yattar: So how long have you been building robots?
Ishida: Since college. Actually, I’ve been experimenting with them since even before that, from around the age of 14 or 15. I’m not a full-time robot designer or anything. I work in the auto industry. I build robots at home, at nights and on weekends.
Y: What was the first robot that you built?
I: I didn’t know anything when I first started out. I bought a Tamiya gearbox for model cars and a large-scale Gundam kit, figuring that I could somehow use the gearbox to make the robot walk. But it was a total failure. (laughs) But it was an important experience in showing me how much I needed to learn. I didn’t go to an engineering-focused high school, so I had to study on my own. And this was before everything started going up on the Internet so I was just started reading books. I eventually went on to major in robotics at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology.
Y: When did you make your robotic debut?
I: Right before college, I signed up for an event called Robo-One (http://www.robo-one.com). I’d heard that they had bipedal robot fighting matches there and entered my own design. It didn’t go well but I met some great people there who mentored me.
Y: What drives you to build robots?
I: It’s simple. I want to build something I can pilot myself. I’m thirty, and I grew up on shows like the Transformers and the Brave series. To me, a robot is something that combines or transforms into a humanoid robot, with a face. That’s just what a robot is to my generation. (laughs) There’s that, and the fact that nobody was building the kind of thing I wanted to see.
Y: What did you focus on in making the Transform Robot series?
I: I wanted to focus on making the “transformation” perfect. There are many humanoid robots out there that can walk smoothly, move quickly, things like that. And of course, there are plenty of fast R/C cars, too. But there’s never been a bipedal robot that can walk along and then perfectly transform into a working vehicle. That’s what I wanted to perfect in this series.
Y: The controller looks super complicated. How long does it take to get proficient at driving it?
I: Oh, you can pick up the basics in five or ten minutes. This is just a standard wireless robot controller.
Y: I love that there even IS a standard wireless robot controller. Anyway, what’s new about robot version 7.2 compared to previous versions in the series?
I: The big thing about the 7 series is having a cockpit, a space for a driver. Previous versions didn’t have that. It’s more durable, to the point where it’s even survived falling off a table without breaking. The 7 is also the most smoothly transforming and best-looking iteration. Physical and visual balance is important to me. It’s gone through a lot of changes since the 1 series, which debuted in 2002.
Y: What are some of the challenges involved in making something like this?
I: Battery life is one. It really goes through them. There are 22 motors in Version 7.2, all powered by a battery about the size of the one in an iPhone. Right now it can run for about 20 minutes on a charge, less if I transform it a lot. Transforming takes a lot of power. Actually, simply standing upright in robot mode consumes power. It’s all about finding the right balance between battery size, battery life, things like that.
Y: How long does it take to build one of these?
I: About two weeks. But if I was starting right now, there are a bunch of improvements I’d like to incorporate so it’d take more like a month.
Y: Improvements! Are you planning a new version ?
I: I am.
Y: What do you want to do with it?
I: Lots of things. My “end game” is making a life-sized, fully transforming car. So for the next iteration I want to increase the size. And I want to make a “combiner.”
Y: A combining robot?
I: That’s the idea.
Y: Is that even POSSIBLE?
I: There are several potential approaches. One idea is to have the robot split into two smaller vehicles. One for the left, one for the right. I’m planning to work on that next year. Another idea is to have a flying vehicle dock with a land-based vehicle. Right now I’m thinking one of those four-bladed “quadcopters” would be the best choice. I’d love to do a combination with a winged airplane, but the speeds involved are too fast for me to realistically handle.
Y: You said you wanted to make a life-sized transforming car for yourself. Is THAT possible?
I: Realistically, right now, the answer is no. The main problem is that the motors you’d need to make it work simply don’t exist. It isn’t a money problem. Currently existing servomotors are too heavy and don’t have enough output, and the structural materials aren’t strong enough to support a life-sized robot. With current technology you’re limited to a robot of one or two meters at most. And the programming you’d need to make everything work together doesn’t really exist yet. I’ve resigned myself to staying healthy and living a long time and waiting for the technologies to mature. (laughs)
Y: Hypothetical situation. Giant alien monster attack. If the American military or JSDF came calling, could you help?
I: Like I said, I think it’s physically impossible. But they’re welcome to call! I’d love to collaborate. (laughs)