Simply speaking, MOTOBOT is Yamaha’s autonomous motorcycle riding humanoid robot. But how and why have Yamaha decided to try and build a robot that can beat nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi round a track? And more importantly, have they achieved it?
Well according to the guys in charge of the three year MOTOBOT project, it has all been done in ‘the spirit of challenge’ and they were under no illusions just how difficult that challenge was going to be. The idea, and the thing that makes the project so unique, was to take a bog standard, unmodified motorcycle (in this case a Yamaha YZF-R1M), strap the robot to it and send it off down pitlane to beat Rossi. That differs from normal ‘automated vehicles’ as usually the automation is built into the vehicle, rather than just plonked on top of it.
Of course, the Yam did need a little bit of faffing with, in order to fix the bot’s botty in place, but to all intents and purposes, the R1M was just a bog-stock bike. It had normal controls, a normal dash, normal bodywork and it even had an ignition key.
They started the ambitious project in partnership with world-leading research institute SRI International with the aim of competing with a real world class riders lap times round a real track, but before they could even begin to do that, MOTOBOT had to learn the basics. In 2015, using levers, pulleys, cams and bits of string, they had the thing weaving in and out of cones at a very sedate pace indeed. But everyone (or everything) has to start somewhere, right? In the same year, they got the thing making its own decisions about a thousands of things a second doing 100km/h on the straight.
The aim for 2017 was 200km/h, which they quickly surpassed, and before long they were doing laps of the track against the clock. Their ultimate goal was to go ‘beyond human capabilities’ but you don’t have to watch many of its laps to realise they were a long way from that.
When the MOTOBOT team invited Rossi for a race, it’s was far from a close-fought thing. The former world champ lapped over 30 seconds faster that his robotic rival, with the Italian MotoGP ace posting a 1:25.740 lap, compared to a 1:57.501 for the bike-riding ‘bot.
In all fairness to Yamaha and the MOTOBOT lads, that’s comparing the thing to Valentino Rossi, one of the most successful bike racers ever. He is a rider that, even now, only a handful of people in the entire world can hold a candle to, never mind robots. And a 1:57 round a two mile circuit is probably an average trackday pace. You wouldn’t get many ‘slow group’ lads lapping witing 30 seconds of Rossi, so when you look at it like that it’s actually quite an impressive feat.
If somebody keeps throwing time and money at this kind of thing, then I’m pretty sure that one day they’d get a MOTOBOT version 10 that can post decent ‘fast group’ spec lap times, and maybe even compete with a few club level racers. But I don’t think it’s going to go any further than that, not in my life time, anyway. I know computers can process a fuck ton of information really, really quickly, but a machine can never have the same ‘feel’ as a chimp, never mind a MotoGP rider. And all of the scientists in the world couldn’t write a program or a computer algorithm that matches a MotoGP riders mind.
I love hearing about projects like this, and I admire not only their ambition, but how far they have got. Let’s not kid ourselves though, there might be plenty that robots and machines are really good at, but racing motorbikes isn’t one of them.