Next Big Thing

‘Spring-mass’ Technology Heralds The Future of Walking Robots Dec 2, 2015

Engineers at Oregon State University successfully field tested their new walking robot last month at Oregon State University. The recent implementation represents the most realistic robotic implementation of human walking dynamics to date. The team hopes that their research will pave the path for human-like versatility and performance in the near future.

The system is based on a relatively new concept called “spring-mass” walking. Less than a decade ago, researchers theorized that combining the passive dynamics of a mechanical system with computer control could enhance a systems ability to blindly react to rough terrain, maintain balance, increase efficiency of motion and walk, more or less, like humans do.

This new approach opens the door to entire new industries, jobs and mechanized systems that are the sole domain of humans now. The findings of the spring-mass walking research were first reported in IEEE Transactions on Robotics, by engineers from OSU and Germany. The work has subsequently been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Human Frontier Science Program. Like many technologies, the technologies developed at OSU have their roots in nature. Scientists began by studying how both humans and animals walk and run to learn how achieve such fluidity of motion. Animals achieve this by combining sensory input from nerves, vision, muscles and tendons to create locomotion. Researchers have now been able to translate this into a working robotic system.

A by-product of the fluid motion, the system is also very efficient. Studies done with their ATRIAS robot model using spring-mass theory, showed that this technology is also three times more energy-efficient than any other human-sized bipedal robot. “I’m confident that this is the future of legged robotic locomotion,” said Jonathan Hurst, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory in the OSU College of Engineering. “We’ve basically demonstrated the fundamental science of how humans walk,” he said. “Other robotic approaches may have legs and motion, but don’t really capture the underlying physics. We’re convinced this is the approach on which the most successful legged robots will work. It retains the substance and science of legged animal locomotion, and animals demonstrate performance that far exceeds any other approach we’ve seen. This is the way to go.”

The current iteration still represents the first steps into what can be achieved with the technology. As the technology is refined and perfected, walking and running robots could find their way into anytthing from mail delivery to the armed forces. Bi-pedal fire fighters could charge up stairs in burning buildings to save trapped victims, take on new roles in factories or perform ordinary household chores.

The locomotion technology could also help people with disabilities, the researchers said. “Robots are already used for gait training, and we see the first commercial exoskeletons on the market,” said Daniel Renjewski, the lead author on the study with the Technische Universitat München. “However, only now do we have an idea how human-like walking works in a robot. This enables us to build an entirely new class of wearable robots and prostheses that could allow the user to regain a natural walking gait.”

Researchers are quick to assert that natural fluid movement by robots mean that there will be few limits to what they can do. “It will be some time, but we think legged robots will enable integration of robots into our daily lives,” Hurst said. “We know it is possible, based on the example of animals. So it’s inevitable that we will solve the problem with robots. This could become as big as the automotive industry.” While people have made such predictions before, spring-mass technology will make the same fluid, efficient mobility available to robots in the next few years that animals took millions of years of evolution to prefect.

In animals and humans muscles, tendons and bones form a structure performs most of the required behavior for movement. Conscious control simply nudges the system slightly to keep it going in the right direction. This create smooth and elastic movement that, once understood, can be simulated springs and other technology in walking robots.

OSU’s most recent robot, ATRIAS, has only six electric motors that are powered by a lithium polymer battery about the size of a half-gallon of milk. This is significantly smaller than the heavy power packs weighing down most mobile robots. It can easily deal with rough terrain, and external impacts.

Researchers reported in their new study that this technology “has the potential to enhance legged robots to ultimately match the efficiency, agility and robustness of animals over a wide variety of terrain.” The focus in future research will be on improving steering, efficiency, leg configuration, inertial actuation, robust operation, external sensing, transmissions and actuators, and other technologies. Noosphere Ventures always support researches related to Medicine of future. We keep abreast of it!