Meet BALLU, UCLA's Humanoid Blimp Robot

A hybrid between a blimp and a humanoid robot can do amazing things

2 min read
BALLU Humanoid Blimp Robot
Image: RoMeLa

The 2016 IEEE International Conference on Humanoid Robots kicks off today. It’s taking place at the Westin Resort & Spa Cancun, which sounds awful, but at least there are some cool new robots, and one of the coolest has to be BALLU, from Dennis Hong at UCLA’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa). BALLU, or Buoyancy Assisted Lightweight Legged Unit (Professor Hong loves a good acronym), is a humanoid-ish robot with a body made of helium balloons and a pair of thin articulated legs. Since it weighs next to nothing, it never falls over, and can walk, hop, and perform a variety of other useful bipedal motions as long as you don’t take it outside on a windy day. 

“To get creative ideas, sometimes we ask ourselves crazy, ridiculous questions,” Hong told us. “Oftentimes these lead to crazy, ridiculous answers, which lead to ingenious ideas.” He added: “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we could change the direction of gravity?’ and this led to the concept of BALLU.”

“To get creative ideas, sometimes we ask ourselves crazy, ridiculous questions. Often times these lead to crazy, ridiculous answers which lead to ingenious ideas.”

Strictly speaking, BALLU is more like a hybrid airship than a blimp: It’s not lighter than air, so it doesn’t float by itself, and requires some assistance (legs, in this case) for support and to control its motion. Since the robot’s legs don’t have to handle a bunch of weight, they can be skinny little twiggy things, and in fact there’s just one single degree of freedom per leg, in the knee. The knees are cable driven, with the actuators in BALLU’s feet, along with communications and power components. This results in a robot that has the majority of its mass at ground level, making it intrinsically stable, even as it walks forward, walks backward, steps sideways, turns, hops, and more. When we say “mass” we’re not talking about much: As you can see in the video, BALLU can walk on water.

RoMeLa BALLU ballon robot Photo: RoMeLa

Of course, BALLU is not the kind of robot that’s ever going to carry anything heavy, or do any kind of substantial manipulation tasks: Hong describes it as more of a “walking information device,” whose main asset is the fact that it is lightweight, low cost, and inherently safe. BALLU is in the very early stages of development, and at the Humanoids conference this week, Hong and RoMeLa grad student Sepehr Ghassemi are just presenting the above video along with a short abstract. The video does give some exciting hints as to what they’re working on next, though: There’s a quadruped version, a version that can carry more payload, and a version with some kind of articulated upper body. Hong also told us that they have a method that allows BALLU to climb or jump over very tall structures, although they haven’t implemented it just yet. We’re definitely looking forward to videos of all of this stuff, as well as more new robots from RoMeLa.

“Feasibility Study of A Novel Robotic System BALLU: Buoyancy Assisted Lightweight Legged Unit,” by Sepehr Ghassemi and Dennis Hong, was presented today at Humanoids 2016 in Cancun, Mexico.

[ RoMeLa ]

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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

“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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