Proponents of legged robots say that they make sense because legs are often required to go where humans go. Proponents of wheeled robots say, “Yeah, that’s great but watch how fast and efficient my robot is, compared to yours.” Some robots try and take advantage of wheels and legs with hybrid designs like whegs or wheeled feet, but a simpler and more versatile solution is to do what humans do, and just take advantage of wheels when you need them.
We’ve seen a few experiments with this. The University of Michigan managed to convince Cassie to ride a Segway, with mostly positive (but occasionally quite negative) results. A Segway, and hoverboard-like systems, can provide wheeled mobility for legged robots over flat terrain, but they can’t handle things like stairs, which is kind of the whole point of having a robot with legs anyway.
At UC Berkeley’s Hybrid Robotics Lab, led by Koushil Sreenath, researchers have taken things a step further. They are teaching their Cassie bipedal robot (called Cassie Cal) to wheel around on a pair of hovershoes. Hovershoes are like hoverboards that have been chopped in half, resulting in a pair of motorized single-wheel skates. You balance on the skates, and control them by leaning forwards and backwards and left and right, which causes each skate to accelerate or decelerate in an attempt to keep itself upright. It’s not easy to get these things to work, even for a human, but by adding a sensor package to Cassie the UC Berkeley researchers have managed to get it to zip around campus fully autonomously.
Remember, Cassie is operating autonomously here—it’s performing vSLAM (with an Intel RealSense) and doing all of its own computation onboard in real time. Watching it jolt across that cracked sidewalk is particularly impressive, especially considering that it only has pitch control over its ankles and can’t roll its feet to maintain maximum contact with the hovershoes. But you can see the advantage that this particular platform offers to a robot like Cassie, including the ability to handle stairs. Stairs in one direction, anyway.
It’s a testament to the robustness of UC Berkeley’s controller that they were willing to let the robot operate untethered and outside, and it sounds like they’re thinking long-term about how legged robots on wheels would be real-world useful:
Our feedback control and autonomous system allow for swift movement through urban environments to aid in everything from food delivery to security and surveillance to search and rescue missions. This work can also help with transportation in large factories and warehouses.
For more details, we spoke with the UC Berkeley students (Shuxiao Chen, Jonathan Rogers, and Bike Zhang) via email.
IEEE Spectrum: How representative of Cassie’s real-world performance is what we see in the video? What happens when things go wrong?
Cassie’s real-world performance is similar to what we see in the video. Cassie can ride the hovershoes successfully all around the campus. Our current controller allows Cassie to robustly ride the hovershoes and rejects various perturbations. At present, one of the failure modes is when the hovershoe rolls to the side—this happens when it goes sideways down a step or encounters a large obstacle on one side of it, causing it to roll over. Under these circumstances, Cassie doesn’t have sufficient control authority (due to the thin narrow feet) to get the hovershoe back on its wheel.
The Hybrid Robotics Lab has been working on robots that walk over challenging terrain—how do wheeled platforms like hovershoes fit in with that?
Surprisingly, this research is related to our prior work on walking on discrete terrain. While locomotion using legs is efficient when traveling over rough and discrete terrain, wheeled locomotion is more efficient when traveling over flat continuous terrain. Enabling legged robots to ride on various micro-mobility platforms will offer multimodal locomotion capabilities, improving the efficiency of locomotion over various terrains.
Our current research furthers the locomotion ability for bipedal robots over continuous terrains by using a wheeled platform. In the long run, we would like to develop multi-modal locomotion strategies based on our current and prior work to allow legged robots to robustly and efficiently locomote in our daily life.
In their experiments, the UC Berkeley researchers say Cassie proved quite capable of riding the hovershoes over rough and uneven terrain, including going down stairs. Photo: UC Berkeley
How long did it take to train Cassie to use the hovershoes? Are there any hovershoe skills that Cassie is better at than an average human?
We spent about eight months to develop our whole system, including a controller, a path planner, and a vision system. This involved developing mathematical models of Cassie and the hovershoes, setting up a dynamical simulation, figuring out how to interface and communicate with various sensors and Cassie, and doing several experiments to slowly improve performance. In contrast, a human with a good sense of balance needs a few hours to learn to use the hovershoes. A human who has never used skates or skis will probably need a longer time.
A human can easily turn in place on the hovershoes, while Cassie cannot do this motion currently due to our algorithm requiring a non-zero forward speed in order to turn. However, Cassie is much better at riding the hovershoes over rough and uneven terrain including riding the hovershoes down some stairs!
What would it take to make Cassie faster or more agile on the hovershoes?
While Cassie can currently move at a decent pace on the hovershoes and navigate obstacles, Cassie’s ability to avoid obstacles at rapid speeds is constrained by the sensing, the controller, and the onboard computation. To enable Cassie to dynamically weave around obstacles at high speeds exhibiting agile motions, we need to make progress on different fronts.
We need planners that take into account the entire dynamics of the Cassie-Hovershoe system and rapidly generate dynamically-feasible trajectories; we need controllers that tightly coordinate all the degrees-of-freedom of Cassie to dynamically move while balancing on the hovershoes; we need sensors that are robust to motion-blur artifacts caused due to fast turns; and we need onboard computation that can execute our algorithms at real-time speeds.
What are you working on next?
We are working on enabling more aggressive movements for Cassie on the hovershoes by fully exploiting Cassie’s dynamics. We are working on approaches that enable us to easily go beyond hovershoes to other challenging micro-mobility platforms. We are working on enabling Cassie to step onto and off from wheeled platforms such as hovershoes. We would like to create a future of multi-modal locomotion strategies for legged robots to enable them to efficiently help people in our daily life.