Disney’s new bipedal robot could have waddled out of a cartoon

Its only job (for now) is to be absolutely adorable.
Creating real-world robotss that have the same magnetism as our favorite animated characters is no simple task. Walt Disney Imagineering/Youtube

Some robots are cuter than others—but Disney may have just revealed a contender for the most adorable yet. Last week at the 2023 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Detroit, a team of researchers from Disney Research Studios in Zurich revealed a charismatic, child-sized bipedal bot that looks like a cross between a cleaned-up WALL-E and a baby chick. With stubby legs, a box-like head, and wiggly antennae, it doesn’t need to do much to look loveable.

But, this little robot packs a powerful amount of personality in the ways it moves—that little boxy head has four degrees of freedom, according to IEEE Spectrum, meaning it can look up, down, around, and tilt in a perplexed manner. Its five-degree-of-freedom legs and hips allow it to balance and waddle around indoors or out, and even catch itself when given a playful shove. 

“Most roboticists are focused on getting their bipedal robots to reliably walk,” Disney research scientist Morgan Pope tells IEEE Spectrum. “At Disney, that might not be enough—our robots may have to strut, prance, sneak, trot, or meander to convey the emotion that we need them to.”

[Related: Why humans feel bad for awkward robots.]

While Disney has long been one of the biggest names in animation, creating real-world characters that have the same magnetism as our favorite movie characters is complicated—after all, animation tools don’t always play fair with the laws of physics, team lead and research scientist Mortiz Bächer added. 

Enter a reinforcement learning-based pipeline that helps bring together animation magic and real-world physicality. The system is highly tunable, and apparently can train a robot new behavior on a single PC. These behaviors can be tweaked, and essentially allow the mostly 3D-printed robot to handle itself in public and stay in character. Additionally, this process opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to making new robotic characters with different personalities, legs, arms, or other components.

[Related: Robotic ‘Super Monster Wolves’ are guarding Japanese towns against bears.]

These kinds of developments are not only fun, but could one day be useful since humans and robots may one day find themselves in closer quarters. Amazon has been playing around with automation for over a decade, and robots are finding their way into healthcare, conservation, and even into our burrito bowls. The team at Disney argues that having a robot that can show you a little bit of emotion or intent can go a long way in bridging the gap between people and potential new robot friends.