FOR motorcycle riders, nothing beats the freedom of the open road and the feeling of man and machine working in perfect harmony. But if one Japanese motorbike manufacturer gets its way, autonomous robot bikes may soon be capable of riding at speeds that would put Valentino Rossi to shame – without a human in the seat.
Yamaha Corporation, one of Japan’s best-known electronics and motorbike manufacturers, has revealed it is rapidly progressing with the development of a robot that can ride motorcycles.
Called Motobot, it has one goal: to ride around a race track faster than Valentino Rossi.
The company says that learnings from Motobot will help it develop new technologies and products that will see the bike maker expand into the area of robotics.
Robotics and artificial intelligence are being called the “fourth industrial revolution” and have been tipped to add £630bn to the British economy alone by 2035, according to government-sponsored reports. Car makers are racing technology companies including Dyson and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, in the bid to sell driverless vehicles.
When the Motobot project began, in 2015, the objectives appeared simple enough to most bike riders. The robot was to reach a maximum speed of 62mph, riding in a straight line, tackle a slalom course and ride around corners. But to Yamaha’s engineers, the challenge was daunting.
This year, however, Motobot has managed to reach speeds of 142mph. And it has lapped the Thunderhill race track race track, in California, within 30 seconds of a benchmark time set by Rossi.
Hiroshi Saijo, Project Manager at Yamaha, said the ultimate aim was to have Motobot “compete with world-class professional riders on lap time.”
Rossi called the progress “Amazing” and added that he hoped there was “more to come”.
Yamaha has been working in partnership with SRI International, a non-profit research institute founded by Stanford University.
There is an obvious problem: the robot’s legs can’t reach the ground
Along the way, there have been highs – exceeding the targets set by the team – and lows, such as watching Motobot crash and roll end-over-end along unforgiving road.
The robot is built around a carbon-fibre shell, and weighs 45kg. A series of actuators allow it to operate the clutch lever, gearbox, throttle handle, brakes and steering.
However, watch Motobot in action and it soon becomes clear there is an obvious problem: the robot’s legs can’t reach the ground. It means that when the bike needs to stop, Motobot must ride it into a high-tech bike bay, which braces it securely in place.
Car makers have carried out similar challenges. In 2014, Audi demonstrated its automous car technology by having an RS7 sports saloon lap the Hockenheim race track at speeds of up to 149mph.