Cornish robot firm lands £79K Nasa deal

By Jonathan Morris
BBC News, Plymouth


A Cornish firm that builds robots has landed a contract with Nasa.

Engineered Arts, in Penryn, will supply one of its Robothespians to welcome visitors to the Kennedy Space Centre this autumn.

The £79,500 ($122,000) robot is being developed by the seven-strong team to converse with visitors to the Florida centre.

Nasa chose the 5ft 9in tall Robothespian after seeing it in operation at a trade show.

Engineered Arts director Will Jackson, 45, said: "We got chatting to Nasa and they said it would be a really good thing to communicate their ideas.

"Nasa is something we used to draw on rockets.

"I remember creeping out of bed to watch those first moon landings, so to actually do something for them is really nice."

Engineered arts has been making robots at a Penryn industrial estate for about five years.

It has sold about 15 Robothespians which, although they cannot walk, can speak and can move their body in a human-like way.

The secret is compressed air which is pumped around the robot like blood through veins.

Rubber "actuators" or tubes, are filled with air and flex in the same way as muscles.

Eyes are made from mobile phone screens attached to two computers in the head and appear disarmingly humanoid.

Another computer in the back operates the arms and limbs.

image captionThe robots have three on-board computers

Mr Jackson said: "I'm really interested in the willing suspension of disbelief.

"Can you get someone to believe in a lump of metal in the same way that they will believe in an image of Robert de Niro on the screen?"

Engineered Arts is now working on speech and face recognition so that its robots can converse with people.

It is competing worldwide with robots such as Asimo from Honda and Boston Dynamics' Petman, which walks and even sweats.

"Robots are at the same stage now as computers were when Microsoft started," said Mr Jackson.

"It's a very exciting time because suddenly it's taking off."

Mr Jackson hopes that if Robothespian is successful at Cape Canaveral it will also be taken on at 10 other Nasa centres around the US.

He said: "We have spent £2m on research and development, so it's all funded by the robots we sell."

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