Posting in Energy
Robots are helping perform surgeries in the operating room, catching the journalism bug and even working on late-night TV. Now, researchers are working to instill in robots the movement capabilities of animals and humans.
Now, a professor at Oregon State University is working to instill in robots the movement capabilities of animals and humans. I spoke recently with Jonathan Hurst about the future of running and walking robots.
There are already robots that can walk and run. How will your technology be different?
It's getting to be a little bit of a crowded field, which is great. But nobody has even approached what animals are capable of doing. We see some robots, which work very well in a controlled environment, walking on very flat ground. It looks very fluid, but it doesn't work well if it hits any disturbances, any bump in the ground. [There] are completely passive walkers, robots that aren't really robots. They're just mechanical pieces. They don't have any electronics on them at all. You start them walking down a hill and they look very natural, but they're very sensitive to disturbances. Another example would be BigDog, which is at Boston Dynamics. This is a military project to basically build a robotic packing mule, something that can assist soldiers in carrying heavy loads. This robot burns a huge amount of energy. All of its control is active. It's analogous to getting around in the world by squatting and jumping and stopping over and over. It uses a lot of energy. What we're trying to do is combine the idea of the passive dynamic walkers -- which don't have any motors and are very efficient but sensitive to disturbances -- with the robustness and ability to deal with disturbances of robots like BigDog.
Why do we want robots to move more like humans and animals?
There are a number of reasons. If we can really understand how animals do it, that means we can replicate it in a robot. If we've demonstrated in a robot human- or animal-like locomotion, that means we can build exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs for humans. I expect to see this sort of thing coming out very soon, the next 10 years. We want robots getting around in human environments. We're going to want robots in our homes. We're going to want robots in hospitals, taking care of people. We're also going to want robots in construction sites. We're going to want robots in military situations to get around rough urban terrain, up and down stairs, through doors.
Why is it so difficult to replicate human and animal walking and running in robots?
I might ask, "Why do people think it's so easy?" But walking and running is a very complicated dynamic motion. If you look at a grandfather clock, it took hundreds of years to develop. Walking and running is a lot more complicated than that. The only reason we know anywhere near as much as we do about it is we can look at animals and try to get some inspiration and understanding from that.
My work is on the science side of things and a little bit removed from just engineering. I'm trying to really understand how animals work and how we can optimize machines. It starts [with] biologists who study animals and study the disturbances and responses of animals. If an animal is walking along and they hit a sudden drop in the ground surface or a change of the ground's stiffness, they'll make some observations of what the animal does. You can only guess really at what's going on inside the animal. It's this tightly coupled combination of neural control with muscle activation and the passive dynamics of springing tendons and things like that. You come up with hypotheses and theories and you try to test them. The way that we're trying to confirm all that is by replicating it with a robot. If we can show that the robot exhibits the same behavior as the animal when faced with the same disturbance, it's not a proof but it's a pretty strong hint that we have an understanding of what's going on. My focus is on creating a mechanical system that enables complex physical interaction tasks like walking and running.
What do you want your robot to be able to do?
I'm hoping to achieve a robot that under normal circumstances on flat ground, it uses almost entirely passive dynamics. So it just bounces along. It's got the springs in the right place so the leg swings along and it doesn't really take any work from motors. And as soon as you hit some unexpected disturbance like a sudden drop in the ground surface, that's when the software can take over, the motors can do some work, and get you back into your passive cycle. By doing this, we can take very little energy. The mechanical system becomes just this cycle. If you think of it as a pogo stick, you're just bouncing along. That's different from the squat, jump, wait. I'm trying to incorporate these energy systems in the mechanical systems as part of the passive dynamics.
How far along are you in this process?
This summer we're building our first prototype monopod. It's just one leg. It will be planar. It's on a boom. It can't fall side-to-side, it can only fall forward and backward. We'll be testing that simple system right after we build it. We'll be adding an additional leg to it, so it will be a biped. We will be comparing the behavior of this biped directly to a running ostrich. We'll have a sudden drop in the ground surface. We'll measure the forces on the ground and so on for both the robot and the ostrich. We hope to learn something scientific about how animals run and they respond to these disturbances. That is on a three-year grant. My long-term goal is to take these off the boom and to do 3-D running out in the world, but that's a little bit less predictable.
Image, top: Biped robot / Courtesy of Oregon State University
Image, bottom: Jonathan Hurst
Jun 7, 2010
I can speak from experience when I say most doctors these days are little more than pill-pushers and few have or will take the time to communicate with you well enough to understand what you feel and what your assessment of your problem is. Three years ago when i had to spend some time in a hospital I would have been far better off with a robot for my room care than i was with the medical staff. I agree that robots are inevitable and as time goes on they'll get better and better. So what if they don't have human compassion or "feelings." What we have are just programmed responses that will someday be programmed into a robot which will then cease to be a robot and become an andriod. I hope they build them with and easily accessible on-of switch, LOL. OldBill
YES! Here are a few of the reasons, I want a robot taking care of me, in the nursing home for the elderly: 1. Robotic nurses aids will most likely be SOBER; have the time, patients, and the expertise to DO IT RIGHT. 2. A robotic nurses aid will probably not decide to steal my laptop, off my lap, as I sleep. 3. A robotic nurses aid will be less likely to share with me, the shingles contamination from their previous patient, or the flu from the one before that. 4. The robotic nurses aid will probably not find me sexually attractive, and decide that raping me will be very satisfying, for both of us. Now. . . is when a compassionate and caring mechanical companion in my home could be appreciated. Robotic practitioners could easily eliminate most ignorant labor. Prostitutes will have to be retrained, because of the speed with which robots will be able to learn that, so many willing teachers. Imaginations will help give the new robotic practitioners a chance. Presently, I have a cat that helps to keep me company, but the language barrier is rather difficult for me, as cats are telepathic. b9f8 Snipped from above: ddferrari "Nooo... It could never be as good as a real person. Ever."
Also 90% of the time that I've been to the doctor (which is probably only around 10 times) I've merely told him my symptoms and he prescribed me a drug. There are computer programs that are better than most doctors at matching the symptoms to the actual cause, but they are not used, to my understanding, because then if someone got seriously ill or died, who would you sue? These are ridiculous issues, but they exist anyways. I think robotic practitioners could easily be better than most doctors, as sad as the case may be.
ddferrari, you obviously don't work in a healthcare environment. I do, and see reports of injured nurses and aids all the time. Number one injury is muscular-skeletal injuries do to bad lifting of patients, or while trying to stop/guide them from falling. Give nurses a robot able to get a patient from a wheel chair to a bed and back, or to assist them to the toilet, or up and down the hall and you'll make them your slaves for life.
Who would want a robot to assist a human nurse or doctor? Who would want a computer to assist a human nurse or doctor? The latter question was asked not too long ago. Now we ask, who would want to take valuable computer based tools away from nurses and doctors? Not too long from now we will have become just as accustomed to robotics, which will allow nurses and doctors to spend their time and energy doing what the robots cannot do, just as computers (when implemented well) save time on paperwork, increase accuracy and patient safety, and help doctors with diagnostics, tracking and other tasks.
re: ddferrari comments - I don't know when the last time you were in the hospital ??? - when was the last time you saw a doctor or nurse or anyone else in the EVIL medical industry act - "kind, compassionate and caring???" and warm?? LOL The medical industry is the one's that are eerie, and TRULY soulless machines. I would prefer a logical machine to an 'OOPS Human doctor' who says "oh well can win them all, there goes another medical bill we can't charge them because the have EXPIRED" Please get in the real world and understand their purpose and goals. MONEY is the root of all evil and the medical industry is the MOST evil ever known to mankind so STOP Paying them.
Human doctors and nurses find it too difficult and damaging to be washing their hands and changing gloves all of the time. The nurse types on the computer keyboard and germs are picked up. The doctor touches the chart at the foot of the bed and germs are transferred. MRSA caught in a hospital killed my mother and hundreds of thousands of other humans. We need robots to take over these jobs and we need them now.
The Robot Age is coming. There's no way around it. There is too much need for them. Although the need for these robots is critical in aiding the human populous in the health field, etc., I am looking forward to the time when there are robots who do more than vacuum rugs. This may sound frivilous to most, but when you're a handicapped individual and cannot afford outside human assistance, I'll take a mechanical assistant anytime.
I'll take a robot Nurse 6 days a week and twice on Sunday. It would be wonderful if all people were programmed in this world for compassion, understanding and even warm civility, but, it just is not the case. Quite the opposite acutally. The robot won't tire out, will be ever vigilant, can and will be programmed to respond to needs in a seemingly compassionate and caring manner. Cover the 'bot with a furry "critter" suit and watch how pedatric patients respond, as they do already, with less sophisticated robotic cousins, and small, fluffy animals already utilized in some facilities. Why shouldn't we use robots as helpers in dangerous and demanding situations? The arrival of the robot age is inevitable, if not timely. Short sighted luddite biogtry helps no one, and is ultimately hurtful to patients, doctors and nursing staff that are already using multiple cybernetic aids.
Smart Planet, dumb readers. Home robots went on sale in Japan 5 years ago. The US, on the other hand, has become accustomed to an infinite supply of immigrant labor to service an aging population. It's interesting to see why Big Dog is ahead of its time. Had assumed it was part of the Future Combat Systems mess.