Coming closer to walking and running robots

May 27th, 2010 - 1:50 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 27 (ANI): Making an important fundamental advancement in robotics, researchers at Oregon State University have come closer to robots that not only can walk and run effectively, but use little energy in the process.

Studies are moving closer to robots that could take on dangerous missions in the military, create prosthetic limbs for humans that work much better, or even help some people who use wheelchairs to gain “walking” abilities.

Work at OSU’s Dynamic Robotics Laboratory to actually build a robot with some of the newest features should be completed by this summer.

“Researchers have been working toward robot locomotion for a long time based mostly on experience and intuition. What we’ve done is taken a step back to analyze the fundamental dynamics of the mechanical system, what behavior is really possible for a given robotic system. A rock can’t fly, no matter what software you write for it,” said Jonathan Hurst, an assistant professor of robotics and mechanical design at OSU.

“This is an important advance and gives us a new foundation to tell what actually will and won’t work before we even try to build it,” he added.

Currently, most applications of robotics are done with machines working in a precise or controlled situation - picking something up off an assembly line, spot welding an automobile in an exact way thousands of times a day.

But when it comes to locomotion, humans and other animals are a tough act to follow, said Hurst.

Using limited energy, they can move easily over uneven terrain, and respond with a fascinating balance of muscles and tendons.

They have different ways to deal with forces, such as holding something in place rigidly, or also responding to outside influences - like the delicate act of holding a cup of coffee level during a bumpy car ride.

In their recent studies, the OSU researchers essentially proved that these two abilities are mutually exclusive.

Humans deal with this problem by flexing opposing pairs of muscles, to change the dynamic properties of their arm.

For a robot, the more it is able to do one of these tasks, the less able it is to do the other.

Existing robots that can walk and run tend to be as rigid as possible while still achieving a basic gait, said Hurst.

The OSU researchers are working toward something that has similar or better performance, but uses far less energy - the best of both worlds, and closer to the abilities of animals.

“If robotic locomotion is ever to achieve some of what we want, it will have to use less energy. There are machines that can walk with no active controls at all, using barely any energy, but they fall if they run into the smallest bump. We need to use as much of that passive ability as possible and only use motors or active controls if it’s really necessary, so we can save energy in the process,” said Hurst.

“Long term, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to build robots or robotic devices with excellent locomotion ability. Clearly this might be useful for some military or police applications in highly dangerous situations. But I could also see great improvements possible with prosthetic limbs that work much better than existing technology, or even the creation of exoskeletons that might allow someone with limited motor ability to walk effectively,” said Hurst.

The study will be presented at two conferences, including the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation. (ANI)

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