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Life-Size Humanoid Robot Is Designed to Fall Over (and Over and Over)

Why try to develop a humanoid robot that doesn't fall over when you can instead just develop an armored one that can fall over and get up again?

3 min read
Life-Size Humanoid Robot Is Designed to Fall Over (And Over and Over)
Image: University of Tokyo

Roboticists worldwide are spending an obscene amount of time and effort trying to teach large humanoid robots how to not fall over. We rejoice every time there is even the smallest incremental bit of progress towards success, because not falling over is super hard, especially if you want your robot to be doing something useful. And even though some large humanoid robots can occasionally survive falling over, most of them don’t enjoy it very much.

Led by Kei Okada and Masayuki Inaba, a team from the University of Tokyo and Kawasaki Heavy Industries is working on their own life-sized humanoid robot, and they’ve come up with a new strategy for not worrying about falls: not worrying about falls. Instead, they’ve built their robot from the ground up with an armored structure that makes it totally okay with falling over and getting right back up again.

The concept behind Robust Humanoid Robot (RHP2) is, as the title of the paper suggests, that it should be able to work for a long time in hazardous situations like “a disaster site, a fire site or a wet environment.” The robot is tethered so that you don’t have to worry about power or connectivity, and since it can fall over and get up without any trouble, you won’t have to go rescue it and then waste time on repairs.

The researchers came up with a new strategy for not worrying about falls: not worrying about falls. Instead, they've built their robot from the ground up with an armored structure that makes it totally okay with falling over and getting right back up again

The fall protection system is designed to do three things: prevent direct mechanical breakage from contact with the ground, prevent indirect mechanical damage (like messed up joints and motors) that might otherwise be sustained during a fall, and prevent all of the fragile and expensive stuff like sensors and computers from fall damage. A lot of this is taken care of by an armored metal frame that encloses the entire robot, meaning that there are no weak points where environmental contact could cause damage. Places on the robot that are especially likely to experience stress (including knees, hands, chest, hips, elbows, and back) are particularly reinforced.

This version of RHP2 is powered by electric motors, although the researchers will eventually upgrade the whole system to hydraulic to give it more power. Rather than use conventional geared joint mechanisms, RHP2 uses linear actuators wherever possible because they’re much more robust. On top of all its metal armor, the robot can also put on different suits depending on what kind of environment it’ll be operating in:

RH2 robust robot that can fallThe Robust Humanoid Platform (RHP) with a suit (top left), falling down (top right), and rendering of scenarios where the robot could be deployed (bottom).Image: University of Tokyo

RHP2 runs ROS and has a few autonomous behaviors, like being able to reposition its limbs during a fall and get itself standing again afterwards, but so far the researchers haven’t had a chance to emphasize practical, operational autonomy. Since the robot relies on that big tether anyway, it’s possible that realistic use-cases may involve telepresence, or DRC-style assistive telepresence.

It may be true that a robot that falls over all the time and just gets up again is not quite as elegant as a robot that doesn’t fall over at all, but we’re very far from the latter, and the former is ready to go right now. In the context of disaster relief, capable humanoid robots can’t come soon enough, so at least in the short term, a robust humanoid robot sounds like a good idea to us.

“Development of Life-Sized Humanoid Robot Platform with Robustness for Falling Down, Long Time Working and Error Occurrence,” by Yohei Kakiuchi, Masayuki Kamon, Nobuyasu Shimomura, Sou Yukizaki, Noriaki Takasugi, Shunichi Nozawa, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, was presented this week at IROS 2017 in Vancouver, Canada.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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