Japan rolls out cheerleading swarm robots

The synchronized dancing machines balance on balls

Murata's cheerleading robot

Murata Manufacturing's cheerleading robot balances on a ball and can do synchronized dance routines.

Credit: Tim Hornyak/IDG News Service

There's something inherently scary about robots acting together to accomplish a goal.

So-called swarm robots, which have recently emerged from robotics labs, have long been a staple of scary science-fiction films. But a new swarm robot group from Japan puts a distinctively "kawaii," or cute, spin on the concept.

Meet the Murata Cheerleading robots. They look like dolls, have glowing eyes and balance on steel balls.

Unveiled Thursday in Tokyo by components maker Murata Manufacturing, each bot looks like a cartoonish girl sporting a red skirt and short black hair.

A series of rollers under the skirt keep the robot balanced on a ball or rotate it in a particular direction to move around.

Under the afro, meanwhile, nestles an infrared sensor and ultrasonic microphones that help the robot detect objects nearby. Three gyro sensors control motion from front to back, side to side and in rotation.

A wireless network is used to control a group of 10 cheerleader robots. They can perform precisely synchronized dance routines, moving into formations such as a heart while spinning on their balls.

It's all very kawaii, and of course intended to generate attention among Japanese audiences and visitors to trade shows.

"We designed the cheerleader robots to cheer people up and make them smile," said Murata spokesman Koichi Yoshikawa. "Their features can be summed up as '3S': stability, synchronization and sensing and communication."

Also known as ballbots, robots that can hold themselves upright while balancing on a sphere were first developed about nine years ago by researchers at the University of Tokyo, Carnegie Mellon University and other robotics labs.

While they're able to maintain their balance on a ball even when given a light push, none has had the humanoid design of the Murata cheerleaders.

Murata's dancers follow in the circus performer tradition of its other robots, which have been perennial exhibits at trade shows such as CES and Ceatec.

Unveiled in 2005, Murata Boy is a bicycle-riding robot that was later enhanced so that it can ride along a curved balance beam. Its sibling Murata Girl, also known as Seiko-chan, can wheel around on a unicycle.

While beautifully designed and impressive in their balancing prowess, the robots have been little more than expensive PR spokesmen, or spokes-machines, for Murata. The firm spent about a year-and-a-half developing the cheerleader robots, a task that involved some 20 engineers.

Like many other highly sophisticated, gorgeously designed robots developed by high-tech companies in Japan to be corporate ambassadors instead of viable products, the cheerleaders will not be put on sale.

Instead they will drum up attention for Kyoto-based Murata, which marks its 70th anniversary in October. It wants the world to know that it controls sizeable market shares for components used in smartphones, computers and automotive electronics.

For instance, it claims a 60 percent global share in connectivity modules, which allow mobile phones to access the Internet through radio signals. It also says it has a 95 percent global share of the market for shock sensors, which can protect data writing processes when hard disk drives experience an external shock.

But the cheerleading robots have more than just spirit. The software that wirelessly orchestrates their gyrations, developed with researchers from Kyoto University, could be used in future automotive safety systems, according to Murata, which also produces gyroscopes and accelerometers used in car stability control and anti-lock brakes.

Murata plans to show off its cheerleaders at the Ceatec tech expo from Oct. 7 to 11 outside Tokyo.

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