April 05, 2016      

Iran’s slow but steady progress with humanoid robotics inspires little awe around the world, but that view might be shortsighted, overly political, or both.

The insular Middle Eastern power first showed off Surena III, the third iteration of a university-made bipedal robot, in November 2015. The robotics demonstration came four months after Iran agreed to halt nuclear weapons production in return for an end to years of painful industrial and financial sanctions.

Surena could easily pass for a Hollywood prop. Its 6 ft., 3 in., 216 lb. frame walks slowly — 0.2 meters or 0.6 ft. per second — and has powdery silver plastic skin. The machine is named after a general of the ancient Parthian Empire (in the region now known as Iran) who defeated a larger Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae.

The machine gazes with LEDs grouped decoratively to suggest eyes. It has three-dimensional vision based on Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect product as well as Farsi-only speech and voice-recognition applications.

The University of Tehran, home of the Surena project, reports that the robot uses control software that was developed in ROS, or the Robot Operating System, a popular choice among roboticists globally and in many industries.

According to the university, 31 servomotors give the Surena’s joints 31 degrees of freedom. The Surena II, introduced in 2010, had 22 degrees of freedom. The first version, a stick-figure affair, had eight degrees when it was introduced in 2008.

A video provided by the university shows engineers placing thin shims beneath the machine’s feet as it walks along to demonstrate the degree to which it can adapt. The video also shows the robot weakly kicking a soccer ball and standing on one leg as its torso leans back.

According to researchers, Surena III can grasp objects, recognize faces, and walk on uneven surfaces, tasks that eluded many of the participants in last year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge. They said they hope that the robot will eventually be useful in hospitals, shops, and homes, as well as for disaster-relief situations. As with many nations’ technology and space plans, military prowess is an unstated part of robotics demonstrations.

The Iranian engineers were clearly inspired by Honda Motor Co.‘s Asimo humanoid robot. Asimo is one of the world’s standard-bearers in terms of degrees of freedom, human mimicry, and environmental adaptation. An Asimo can be seen stationed in the same room in which the Surena is operated.

Honda also hopes that its Asimo will lead to robots to aid in disaster recovery.

Map of Iran

Iran is not alone in the region in experimenting with humanoid robotics.

The Middle Eastern robotics market is estimated to have grown at about 6 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Saudi Arabia’s population is aging, and the threat of terrorism is slowing the influx of foreign workers, both factors that make robotics attractive.

Although the region is largely an importer of robotics, it has numerous university research programs and a few domestic commercial ventures.

Local robotics companies include RoboHiTec, a small-scale manufacturer in the United Arab Emirates. Israel remains the Middle East’s robotics giant.

Sanctions uncertainty affects robotics

Iran could play a major role in the coming years, assuming it does not end up restrained by additional sanctions. International sanctions remain in place for Iran’s support of terrorism and other destabilizing activities.

And in the U.S., politicians in both major parties are eagerly looking for opportunities to withdraw from last year’s sanctions agreement.

Should the current status hold, however, Iranian economics and demographics could push the country’s technological capabilities forward. The American Interest, a foreign-policy publication, for the first time named Iran (and rival Saudi Arabia) as one of the globe’s “great powers.”

Sanctions relief allows for the legal sale of crude oil from Iran, which the BBC estimates cost the nation’s economy $160 billion in 2012. And Iranian assets frozen outside the nation — totaling $100 billion to $125 billion — are being returned.

Could Iran be a high-tech leader?

Iran’s literacy rate, 86 percent, is essentially the same as that of the U.S. Its population of 82 million is young and overwhelmingly urban. About 73 percent of all Iranians live in cities.

More than 40 percent of the nation is 24 years old or younger, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. One in three people between 15 and 24 is unemployed.

Some see in Iran’s electronics efforts today the same dynamics that propelled Japan, then South Korea, and then China to be high-technology manufacturing powerhouses.