Italian Quadruped Robot Goes for a Walk

The quadruped robot HyQ is Italy's answer to BigDog, and last week it left the lab for the first time

2 min read
Italian Quadruped Robot Goes for a Walk

HyQ quadruped robot

Last week, researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology took their quadruped robot HyQ for a test run outside the lab for the first time. The researchers were anxious to try some new tricks HyQ has learned, including the ability to trot over obstacles without falling. The robot is still a strange headless creature, and though a sensor head is in the works, this quadruped might get even weirder with a new hardware addition: arms. Yes, arms.

HyQ, built by a team from IIT’s Department of Advanced Robotics, in Genoa, is a hydraulic robot that relies on torque-controlled, actively compliant actuators. The goal of the project is to create an autonomous, versatile machine capable of running, jumping, and negotiating rough terrain that could find applications in search-and-rescue operations and exploratory missions.

The team, led by Professor Darwin Caldwell, will discuss recent improvements made to the robot's control system at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, which happens this week in St. Paul, Minn.

The researchers had previously tested HyQ on a special treadmill, when the robot achieved 1.7 meters per second. During last week's outdoor trials, the robot ran free on a 20-meter long concrete track (or mostly free—the researchers installed a safety harness above the robot, and a tether provided hydraulic power). HyQ reached a new top speed of 2 m/s with a walking trot gait, and the researchers expect it could go even faster when more space is available. Watch:

One big upgrade is that the control system now uses data from the on-board inertial measurement unit, or IMU, a Microstrain device running at 1 kilohertz, the same frequency of the servo controllers. The data allows the robot to react to disturbances and maintain a predetermined posture. When it trips on an obstacle, for example, it can correct its steps and avoid a fall. 

"We're able to do balance control with reactive steps," says Claudio Semini, the IIT researcher responsible for HyQ's hardware and a founding member of the project. "The robot reacts to what's happening on the spot."

The researchers acknowledge that their robot still needs improvements before it can achieve the performance levels of Boston Dynamics's famed quadrupeds, BigDog and AlphaDog, which can climb slopes, walk over icy surfaces, and even keep their balance after getting kicked.

"We haven't kicked our robot yet," says Jonas Buchli, team leader of the HyQ project and a locomotion software expert. "But it's starting to look eerily similar [to the way BigDog walks] … It looks almost like an animal." 

The IIT team is working with an Italian company to equip the robot with an on-board hydraulic system, which would eliminate the tether, an upgrade that should happen over the next several months. Another improvement is to add more sensors, including a Velodyne LIDAR, for mapping and navigation. (The researchers will describe HyQ's systems in research papers but do not plan to make all hardware and software open source.)

And soon, HyQ will get a pair of manipulation arms, becoming, in effect, a kind of robotic Centaur [see CAD images below showing conceptual designs of the arms in stowed and extended configurations]. “We want to combine the advantages of both legs and arms,” Buchli says. ”Adding manipulation to a stable locomotion platform opens up some interesting possibilities.”

HyQ quadruped robot with arms

Images and video: IIT

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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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