Scientists are making strides in developing remote-controlled two-legged robots, which could be used in the future to rescue victims from burning buildings and other places inaccessible to humans.
Engineers at MIT and the University of Illinois have developed a method to control balance in a two-legged remotely operated robot.
This is “an essential step toward enabling a humanoid to carry out high-impact tasks in challenging environments”, according to MIT.
The robot is controlled by a human wearing a vest which transmits information about their motions and reactions to the robot.
The vest allows the human operator to both direct how the robot moves and also feel the robot respond to their commands.
That means if the robot begins to tip over, the human operator can feel the vest pulling them forward and can adjust their own balance in order to pull the robot back upright.
During experiments with the robot testing this “balance feedback” approach, the human operators were successfully able to keep the robot balanced while it jumped and walked.
“It’s like running with a heavy backpack – you can feel how the dynamics of the backpack move around you, and you can compensate properly,” says Dr Joao Ramos.
“Now if you want to open a heavy door, the human can command the robot to throw its body at the door and push it open, without losing balance.”
Dr Ramos, who began this work while a post-doctoral researcher at MIT, is now an assistant professor at the University of Illionois.
Alongside Dr Sangbae Kim, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, Dr Ramos detailed the pair’s approach in a paper in Science Robotics.
Because their robot, known as HERMES (Highly Efficient Robotic Mechanisms and Electromechanical System), can directly output human motions, it doesn’t need an advanced computer system to train it to jump.
According to MIT, in demonstrations the robot has managed to pour coffee into a cup, chop wood with an axe, and handle a fire extinguisher to put out a fire.
“All these tasks have involved the robot’s upper body and algorithms to match the robot’s limb positioning with that of its operator’s,” MIT explained.
But they were done while HERMES was stood still. The new balancing mechanism could help it perform those same activities while moving.
Although the first prototype was quite small, the pair plan to work on developing a full-body prototype of the robot that will be able to gallop through a disaster zone and remove debris as part of a rescue mission.