One of the key issues with current bipedal robots is locomotion – most of them move either too slow and cautious, or too fast and reckless, which often leads to physical damage.
To address the problem, a group of five researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland are working on a headless 95-cm-tall robot built to master an activity which comes perfectly natural to us, but actually involves a highly complicated balancing act between a number of individual muscles.
The actuators of the COMAN (Compliant Humanoid) are integrated with springs which can absorb shock while walking, save energy and provide the robot with the ability to walk more naturally.
Rounding out the system is a control algorithm designed to make the robot ‘aware’ of the symmetries in its dynamics and structure, allowing it to maintain balance and even carry objects, navigate unpredictable surfaces and react to sudden disturbances.
For instance, when pushed from the back, the COMAN will perform a calculation and find the optimal foot placement to avoid losing its balance – a feature that few (if any) of its robotic counterparts can boast of.
“You could say we’re working in harmony with these symmetries rather than against them. As a result, we obtain a more natural and robust walking gait,” said study co-author Hamed Razavi.
As part of the project, the researchers also conducted a study on how two people carrying an object together manage to coordinate their movements without communicating. Their findings, recently published in PLOS ONE, indicate the synchronisation takes place as people automatically harmonise their movements, like a quadruped.
The most obvious future applications of such automatons are search and rescue operations, different types of cooperative scenarios (just picture a crew of robots moving your piano down the stairs) and exoskeletons and powered prosthetics for people with paralysed limbs.
“Whether for manufacturing or natural disasters, we need robots that can interact with humans and help us carry heavy objects,” said another study co-author Jessica Lanini. “But such robots don’t exist. That’s because, in order to operate safely and effectively, the robots would need to be able to make decisions and respond to unexpected circumstances.”
There is no date on the roll-out of the new system yet as research is currently ongoing.