MABEL Bipedal Robot is Fast Enough to Run You Down

The University of Michigan's bipedal running robot, MABEL, can sprint at 10.9 kilometers per hour

1 min read
MABEL Bipedal Robot is Fast Enough to Run You Down

It was only a year ago that the University of Michigan's MABEL biped robot was breaking its ankles trying to walk over rough terrain. Now the robot is defying death once again by becoming the world's fastest bipedal robot, with the ability to sprint at up to 10.9 kph. More specifically, MABEL is the world's fastest "kneed" bipedal robot, which just means that it's the fastest robot that can run in a similar manner to us humans, leaving those Toyota robots (4.3 kph) and ASIMO (3.7 kph) in the dust.

MABEL is capable of such blistering speeds thanks to an innovative mechanical design which, although it may not look like it, incorporates a lot of the characteristics of a human runner. For example, MABEL has a torso that's substantially heavier than its legs, just like a human, and it's also got a system of springs that act like tendons. This gives MABEL a very human-like, bouncing gait, and the robot spends 40% of its time running in a "flight phase" with both feet off the ground, similar to humans:

For reference, MABEL's top speed of 3 meters per second probably isn't enough to catch a tolerably in-shape human, as Olympic sprinters can run at up to 10 meters per second over short distances. But the thing about robots is that they're determined, so in the end, it's a good thing that MABEL is tethered to that pole. And that it doesn't have any arms to grab you with. Or any vision sensors, either. So even if you can't run, at least you can hide.

For now. 

[ MABEL ] via [ University of Michigan ]

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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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