Inflatable Limb Robot Runs Around on Wiggly Legs

This quadruped robot walks around on air-powered soft tentacles instead of legs

2 min read
Inflatable Limb Robot Runs Around on Wiggly Legs

Some of the most interesting forms of locomotion in the animal kingdom come from creatures without bones. We're talking cephalopods, like octopi, who can use their tentacles to both "walk" like we do and move in a bunch of other ways, often while carrying objects. This has inspired researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology and Kings College London to design a new sort of quadruped robot that walks around on air-powered soft tentacles instead of legs.

This quadruped is called a continuum robot, which means that it's got limbs (or arms or manipulators or what have you) that are curvy and flexible. The amount of curvature in each leg can be adjusted by altering the air pressure inside the three air-filled tubes that act as muscles and bones, and by doing this rapidly and in the right sequence, the robot can wiggle its way across a variety of surfaces at a speed that's somewhere between silly and menacing:

One particularly nice feature about air-filled limbs is that they're inherently compliant, which is a fancy robot term for bendy. They make great shock absorbers, and you can also beat on them with staplers (among other things) and they won't break, mostly because there's nothing in there to break: they're just tubes with air inside. When fully inflated, the limbs are nearly rigid; they're springy when partially inflated, and they're soft when uninflated to the point where the robot can stuff itself into small holes. Or that's the idea.

At this point, the engine (whatever is providing compressed air) isn't mounted inside the robot itself, but it looks like there's plenty of room in there for some solenoids and a gas generator or something like that. The researchers suggest that robots like this might be adaptable to a wide variety of tasks, ranging from planetary exploration to swimming to mine detection. Mine detection is especially appropriate, even with the current incarnation of the robot: with everything offboard, the robot itself doesn't really weigh anything, which is exactly what you want when you're trying not to blow yourself up.

"Locomotion with Continuum Limbs," by Isuru S. Godage, Thrishantha Nanayakkara, and Darwin G. Caldwell with the with the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia and King’s College, University of London, was presented today at the 2012 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vilamoura, Portugal.

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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

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

"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.

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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