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Coming soon ... the robot that can walk like a human

THE jerky mechanical movements of the famous Star War 'droid C-3PO could soon be a dim and distant memory thanks to Scottish researchers who are embarking on an ambitious project to make robots move like humans.

The Atlas robot
The Atlas robot

Experts at Edinburgh University have revealed that next year they will acquire an Atlas "humanoid" robot, which stands two metres tall and can walk. The scientists intend to perfect the mechanics of human motion in the machine.

It is also hoped the research can be used to help in the rehabilitation of people who suffer movement difficulties due to illness or injury.

The Atlas robot was developed by the US company Boston ­Dynamics, which was recently bought by Google. It is the eighth robotics company purchased by the internet company this year, although the exact details of Google's project are being kept under wraps.

But reports have suggested the aim could be to combine the use of robots with research into self-driving cars to help automate the delivery of goods to people's homes.

Sethu Vijayakumar, professor of robotics at Edinburgh University, said researchers expected to take delivery of the Atlas humanoid robot in summer next year.

"We will start by looking at human motion and we will have a facility for testing human gait," he said.

"The idea is to be able to transfer motion we have captured from humans to robotic platforms which are humanoid - which look human-like, with two legs.

"The goal is two-fold - one is to obviously create better autonomous robots which are much more robust in navigation and in dexterity.

"The second thing is to understand deficits in human locomotion.

"For example, if you have got a stroke patient or somebody who has had an injury and we understand the underlying mechanism for generating gait, then we can go back and look at what corrective mechanism we can employ on human patients."

The project is one of the first to be embarked on by the Edinburgh Robotics and Autonomous Systems Interaction Research Facility, a collaboration between Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities.

It received £6.1 million of funding earlier this year to become a world-leading centre for robotics.

Vijayakumar said one aim was to improve the "core science" behind robot control and develop machines which could be used for everything from inspecting pipelines underwater to better medical prosthetics.

He also pointed out that robots were likely to take many forms in the next decade, not just as "walking humanoids".

One example is the flying drone - Amazon recently outlined plans to use drones to transport goods to customers by air.

Vijayakumar drew comparisons between the development of the smartphone industry and the use of robots in the future.

He said: "These days smartphones are used for everything from monitoring health to reading barcodes.

"If someone had told you 20 years ago the phone would be used in those ways, no-one would have believed you.

"It is the same story with robotics now - we are getting to a stage where the basic building blocks are coming together, so it is up to this open society to figure out what are efficient ways of using it."

He added: "It is up to society and people to figure out what are the possibilities and that will blossom once the price and the standardisation happens, just like in the smartphone industry."

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