Oregon State robot walks something like the walk

If you’ve seen films of a robot, walking, most of the time it walks like … well … a robot.

Traditional bipedal robots take steps fairly slowly and deliberately, with “knees” that are permanently bent. Such robots easily could be tripped. Also, the stiff motion requires a lot of energy, which limits how long a bipedal robot can operate.

But the researchers behind a new walking robot designed and built at Oregon State University say their robot is both more efficient and mobile than any that’s come before it, because its design is based on a study of the motion of humans and ground-running birds.

The robot’s steps are bouncy. Even standing, it bounces from one leg to the other in a constant movement. And the constant motion enables it to walk over different terrains, uphill, and even over obstacles.

“This is the first and only robot to replicate the physics of human and animal locomotion,” said Jonathan Hurst, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering, and director of the university’s Dynamic Robotics Laboratory.

The robot is called ATRIAS, short for Assume the Robot is a Sphere, and it is in daily testing in preparation for a major demonstration at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s robotics competition June 5 and 6.

Hurst said researchers at OSU and their partners at the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University worked with Monica Dailey, a researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, to study the movement of humans and birds, such as ostriches and guinea fowl.

“When we saw something that is the same across many sizes of animals we knew that it is something fundamental,” he said.

Unlike other walking robots, ATRIAS does not use cameras to react to obstacles. Instead, Hurst said, it is a “self-stable” system that is designed to react and balance to its terrain as it walks. The robot’s legs act like springs that absorb kinetic energy and reuse it.

Hurst said that the fluid motion of walking animals retains a lot of energy, but other walking robots can’t maintain that kinetic energy. In a press release on ATRIAS, OSU noted that ATRIAS is three times as energy efficient as any other bipedal walking robot.

Hurst said ATRIAS, which was funded by a four-year, $4.7 million grant from DARPA, is not a consumer product, but it does lay the foundation for future robotic development. ATRIAS was designed and built over three years at OSU, along with two similar robots that since have been sent to OSU’s partner institutions.

“This is a scientific tool to investigate and demonstrate walking,” Hurst said.

There are a number of ways that ATRIAS’ design principles could be used, he said: to create better prosthetic limbs and to make exoskeletons that could be used for heavy lifting, or to increase the mobility of people who use wheelchairs. But it also could be used to create robots that are better able to function in human environments and rough terrain.

“The whole (robotics) community is going to move forward very quickly to build things that are better than this,” he said.

He gave the example of a robot sent into a radioactive area after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. The robot got stuck on some rough terrain. He said a robot that could walk like ATRIAS would have been able to better respond in an area that would be dangerous for humans.

“Do you send a human firefighter into a burning building, or a robot?” Hurst said.

Hurst said ATRIAS still is being developed and modified incrementally, and the researchers believe that they eventually will get ATRIAS to the point where it can run, not just walk.

Andy Abate, now a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, began working on ATRIAS as an undergraduate.

“It’s just incredibly cool. It’s why I’m glad I came to Oregon State. It’s a research institution, and stuff like this is constantly going on, and you can get involved with it.”

Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com.