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Athlete Robot Learning to Run Like Human

Can this robot run less like Asimo and more like Usaim Bolt?

2 min read
Athlete Robot Learning to Run Like Human

athlete robot

Japanese researcher Ryuma Niiyama wants to build a biped robot that runs.

But not like Asimo, whose running gait is a bit, well, mechanical.

Niiyama wants a robot with the vigor and agility of a human sprinter.

To do that, he's building a legged bot that mimics our musculoskeletal system.

He calls his robot Athlete. Each leg has seven sets of artificial muscles. The sets, each with one to six pneumatic actuators, correspond to muscles in the human body -- gluteus maximus, adductor, hamstring, and so forth [see diagram below].

To simplify things a bit, the robot uses prosthetic blades, of the type that double amputees use to run.

And to add a human touch, Niiyama makes the robot wear a pair of black shorts.

Human runners with prosthetic feet, like South African paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed the "Blade Runner," "give me great inspiration," Niiyama tells me.

The robot has touch sensors on each foot and an inertial measurement unit on the torso for detecting the body's orientation.

Niiyama developed the robot as a PhD candidate at the Department of Mechano-Informatics of the University of Tokyo with colleague Satoshi Nishikawa, under the supervision of their advisor, Professor Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

They presented their project at the IEEE Humanoids 2010 conference in Nashville, Tenn., last week.

The researchers are now teaching Athlete to run. They programmed the robot to activate its artificial muscles with the same timing and pattern of a person's muscles during running.

athlete robot

Niiyama, who has since become a post-doc at MIT's Robot Locomotion Group in Cambridge, Mass., says they're trying to better understand how we control our muscles during a challenging task like running.

Previously, he studied another complex motion, jumping, by developing a bipedal hopping robot called Mowgli.

Traditional humanoid robots like Asimo run by changing the angle of their joints. Their legs are rigid, powered by motors coupled to reduction gears. In other words, they run like robots.

People, as well as animals, don't keep track of the position of their joints -- we use our viscoelastic muscles and tendons to bounce against the ground, propelling our bodies forward while maintaining balance.

Athlete can take three, sometimes five steps, moving at about 1.2 meters per second. Then it falls. Watch:

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/bXqUjiNw8fo?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]

It's a short dash, but the researchers are optimistic. They plan to fine tune the artificial muscles and improve the feedback control system. And then hopefully move their tests to a real running track.

Images: Ryuma Niiyama

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Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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