For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination with robots, as I can imagine any young kid would. My dad had bought my brothers and I a Toby Robot some 30 years ago. Fast forward three decades and humanoid robotics have come a long way. Recently, Gammatek announced the introduction of a few robots in the country, one of which is the UBTech Alpha1 Pro (as seen in Transformers: The Last Knight).
Humanoid robots haven’t quite reached the stage where they are fully automated or are able to bring you cup of tea, or at least one we can afford. Unfortunately, if you want some level of automation, your options are still limited to the many vacuum cleaner robots available in the dozens. The UBTech Alpha1 Pro (A1P) aims to bring robotics into your homes, providing fun and entertainment along with easy controls and learning opportunities for youngsters. It can dance, sing, play football and even do kung-fu and pushups, but is it really worth it?
Build and Design
Upon unboxing the Alpha1 Pro, the packaging is fairly simple for something so high-tech. In fact, all you’ll find within the box contents are the A1P, charging adapter, and a few manuals. The robot comes full assembled, and is extremely straight forward to start using. After a quick charge of about 45 minutes, I turned on the unit and was able to pair it to my smartphone within seconds from the installed ‘Alpha 1’ app designed specifically for the A1P.
The Alpha1 Pro takes the form of a macho male figure with its puffed-out chest, broad shoulders and rather large biceps, resembling more of the typical gym body as opposed to a regular human. Still, it isn’t quite the Robosapien all those years ago now. Despite its rather large upper body, the A1P is a fairly balanced unit, standing tall at 40cm tall, while weighing a hefty 1.65KG. There are a total of 16 servomotors, six on the upper body, with an additional ten for the legs, where the A1P gets most of its free-flowing movement from. When powered up, the unit stands upright with ease with its hands stretched out, but when there’s no power to the motors, it becomes more like a limp sleeping baby, and isn’t easy to display in the upright position.
There’s a lot of plastic to go around on the Alpha1 Pro, with most of the important and sensitive bits neatly tucked away by the casings. There’s still a lot on show, however, with all the servos exposed, along with some wiring, making it quite an impressive site. In addition to this, the unit also has a few LEDs throughout, notably its eyes and ears. These lights flicker and change colour, adding to the robots fairly impressive range of motion. Given the unit’s slightly heavy battery pack fitted to its back, almost like an amateur jetback, there is a slight hunch in the A1P’s upright stance for complete balance. It’s hard for me to make any better suggestions as to how the battery pack should be carried, since I’m no expert on the matter, although it would have been more visually appealing if it were somehow nestled within the plastic body. The battery pack houses the on/off button, the DC charging port, and mini-USB port. There’s also a red emergency button to switch off the unit in case things get out of hand, but it never came to that. I did, though, test the button, which ended in an immediate shut down of the A1P, dropping to the floor like a ton of bricks.
Design-wise, the A1P isn’t the best looking humanoid robot, but the all-round movement capabilities makes up for any visual impairments the device might have.
Performance and Battery Life
Once you’ve successfully paired your Alpha1 Pro to the app, you’ll have quite a lot of options to explore to play around with. Having downloaded a few dance moves and explored much of the app, I finally stumbled upon the demo mode, which gives you a slight overview of the robots capabilities. Starting off with a simple “hello” and some chatter, the A1P clears its throat to deliver a rendition of “Only You” followed by a dance along to “Gangnam Style” and a range of other movements to showcase its speed and precision. And that’s the big trump card for the A1P. But that all depends on how you use it.
For starters, the A1P doesn’t really fair well on all surfaces and hence doesn’t produce the same results for each. For example, using it on a fabric surface, like a mat, makes its one-legged balance and movement a bit sticky, causing it to stumble quite often for the quicker movements. Standard motion isn’t as bad on the mat, however, and provides some cushioning for any falls. Switching to a tiled surface produces a lot better results, quicker movement across the floor, but it too has its own disadvantages, given the gaps between each tile. For optimum movement and speed, I found that a flat wooden area provides the best results, with a little more grip than tiles without it being too bogged down. One of the really great features on the A1P is that it’s able to pick itself up when it falls on its back and face. Although no options are provided for a side fall, after a few tries the unit will eventually be lying on its back or face as it’s predicted to. The balance and movements are good enough for the A1P to drop itself to the floor, do a push-up, a one-handed push-up, and then when its done, lift itself back up again.
In terms of the battery life, your average lifespan is roughly an hour’s worth. It all depends on how quick the movements, how often, and how many lights and music you include. This isn’t a lot of time to play in a single sitting. The A1P is fitted with a 7.4v, 2200mAh would be considered fairly substantial for your average smartphone, but when you consider that the unit has 16 servos that can be operated all at once it you wouldn’t expect much more in terms of battery life. On the plus side, the battery charges in less than an hour, which allows you to get right back at it in no time.
With all the capabilities of the Alpha1 Pro its important that the controllers are as good. UBTech has released a smartphone app for Android, iOS and Windows Phone, along with support for Windows PC and MacOS. The smartphone app allows you to wirelessly connect to the A1P via Bluetooth, while also being able to download new dances and routines. There’s also an additional option allowing you to control the robot live for two types of sports, football and kung-fu. Both controls allow you to move back and forth, sideways, pick itself back up off the floor, with each having two unique movements, shooting and blocking for football, and kicking and punching for kung-fu. All of these features are great for pre-set movements, but falls far short of the mark when it comes to creating your own set of movements. To create a set, you have to capture each position in sequential steps, while also adding triggers for the LED lights and sound. Once the position has been captured and you’d like to add a follow-up position, the A1P resets its servos to disengaged mode, leaving you to have to remember the previous position, and make an addition in relation to that position. This is fairly complicated if you’re not capturing every position, although the good news here is that the motion from one position to the next is catered for by the software itself and not have to be programmed manually.
For the best results for adding and creating sets, it’s much easier and much more professional to use the PC software. The only negative here, however, is that the interface required to connect the A1P to the PC is a mini-USB cable. I would suggest getting a fairly long cable to make things easier when going through the range of motions and positions for the unit, so as to not get in the way or trip over the cable. There’s a bit of a learning curve to using the PC software, but the level of control and detail are far more intricate. The possibilities here are almost endless, ranging anywhere from a simple walk, right up to the previously-mentioned “Gangnam Style.”
One of the biggest hurdles for the UBTech Alpha1 Pro is its cost. At around R8,500, the unit isn’t the most affordable device to own. At this cost, it wouldn’t be too much to ask for some level of automation, gesture controls or voice commands. It would have also been a better learning experience for enthusiasts and youngsters to have the opportunity to build the unit upon unboxing to give a better understanding of some of the mechanics that go into engineering such a device.
There’s no doubt that the Alpha1 Pro is a capable humanoid robot, with 16 servomotors to provide a great range of movements. The unit, however, isn’t geared to be used on all surfaces, with mats and tiles having quite a few obstacles, with wood being the optimum surface for best results. There’s also great learning potential for anyone to get to grips with learning the more basic functionality of robotics, and there’s great potential lying in wait.