Disney develops free-walking robot Groot for its theme parks

Disney’s R&D labs, commonly known as its Imagineering team, rolled up its sleeves with Project Kiki to create a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor who could one day interact with Disney theme park guests and make them feel like they’re face-to-face with their favorite characters.

The result of more than three years of work is a small bipedal robot that can take the form of many different characters, including Baby Groot, which can move on its own. Baby Groot robot can dance, run, wave, and even stand on one leg.

The gait is smooth, the arms swing in a lifelike manner, the feet plant realistically, and the body sways exactly as you’d expect it. This pint-sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands, and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films.

When the team started working on the project, there were no robots capable of doing the task, so they started building their own robots. Most of Project Kiwi’s components are custom built and include some clever design features. For example, it has a hollow frame that allows circulating air to cool its motors and actuators.

While the robot may seem like a breakthrough in many ways, we may not see it in a Disney park anytime soon. Imagineering told TechCrunch that Project Kiwi is still in the early prototype phase and has a lot of work to do before leaving the lab. For example, the robot is to be equipped with an improved skeleton that is lighter and more efficient. The robot must also be able to guarantee more stability and make decisions quickly.

Currently, the team is working on a new sensor package that will enable Kiwi to better understand the world and recognize human faces. They are also focusing on a new set of actuators that will make the robot better equipped to handle sudden interactions, such as a kid running up to hug it, that could topple it over.

Battery life is another area where the robot could improve. With onboard battery power, the robot currently hits around the 45-minute mark, with more longevity hoped for in the final version. The robot Groot has only a single cable to deliver live instructions and built-in speakers for interactions with nearby humans.

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