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MIT is Building a Dynamic, Acrobatic Humanoid Robot

This small-scale humanoid is designed to do parkour over challenging terrains

4 min read
Rendering of the MIT Humanoid
Rendering: MIT

For a long time, having a bipedal robot that could walk on a flat surface without falling over (and that could also maybe occasionally climb stairs or something) was a really big deal. But we’re more or less past that now. Thanks to the talented folks at companies like Agility Robotics and Boston Dynamics, we now expect bipedal robots to meet or exceed actual human performance for at least a small subset of dynamic tasks. The next step seems to be to find ways of pushing the limits of human performance, which it turns out means acrobatics. We know that IHMC has been developing their own child-size acrobatic humanoid named Nadia, and now it sounds like researchers from Sangbae Kim’s lab at MIT are working on a new acrobatic robot of their own.

We’ve seen a variety of legged robots from MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, including Cheetah and HERMES. Recently, they’ve been doing a bunch of work with their spunky little Mini Cheetahs (developed with funding and support from Naver Labs), which are designed for some dynamic stuff like gait exploration and some low-key four-legged acrobatics.

In a paper recently posted to arXiv (to be presented at Humanoids 2020 in July), Matthew Chignoli, Donghyun Kim, Elijah Stanger-Jones, and Sangbae Kim describe “a new humanoid robot design, an actuator-aware kino-dynamic motion planner, and a landing controller as part of a practical system design for highly dynamic motion control of the humanoid robot.” So it’s not just the robot itself, but all of the software infrastructure necessary to get it to do what they want it to do.

BackflipMIT Humanoid performing a back flip off of a humanoid robot off of a 0.4 m platform in simulation.Image: MIT

First let’s talk about the hardware that we’ll be looking at once the MIT Humanoid makes it out of simulation. It’s got the appearance of a sort of upright version of Mini Cheetah, but that appearance is deceiving, says MIT’s Matt Chignoli. While the robot’s torso and arms are very similar to Mini Cheetah, the leg design is totally new and features redesigned actuators with higher power and better torque density. “The main focus of the leg design is to enable smooth but dynamic ‘heel-to-toe’ actions that happen in humans’ walking and running, while maintaining low inertia for smooth interactions with ground contacts,” Chignoli told us in an email. “Dynamic ankle actions have been rare in humanoid robots. We hope to develop robust, low inertia and powerful legs that can mimic human leg actions.”

The design strategy matters because the field of humanoid robots is presently dominated by hydraulically actuated robots and robots with series elastic actuators. As we continue to improve the performance of our proprioceptive actuator technology, as we have done for this work, we aim to demonstrate that our unique combination of high torque density, high bandwidth force control, and the ability to mitigate impacts is optimal for highly dynamic locomotion of any legged robot, including humanoids.

-Matt Chignoli

Now, it’s easy to say “oh well pfft that’s just in simulation and you can get anything to work in simulation,” which, yeah, that’s kinda true. But MIT is putting a lot of work into accurately simulating everything that they possibly can—in particular, they’re modeling the detailed physical constraints that the robot operates under as it performs dynamic motions, allowing the planner to take those constraints into account and (hopefully) resulting in motions that match the simulation pretty accurately. 

“When it comes to the physical capabilities of the robot, anything we demonstrate in simulation should be feasible on the robot,” Chignoli says. “We include in our simulations detailed models for the robot’s actuators and battery, models that have been validated experimentally. Such detailed models are not frequently included in dynamic simulations for robots.” But simulation is still simulation, of course, and no matter how good your modeling is, that transfer can be tricky, especially when doing highly dynamic motions. 

“Despite our confidence in our simulator’s ability to accurately mimic the physical capabilities of our robot with high fidelity, there are aspects of our simulator that remain uncertain as we aim to deploy our acrobatic motions onto hardware,” Chignoli explains. “The main difficulty we see is state estimation. We have been drawing upon research related to state estimation for drones, which makes use of visual odometry. Without having an assembled robot to test these new estimation strategies on, though, it is difficult to judge the simulation to real transfer for these types of things.”

We’re told that the design of the MIT Humanoid is complete, and that the plan is to build it for real over the summer, with the eventual goal of doing parkour over challenging terrains. It’s tempting to fixate on the whole acrobatics and parkour angle of things (and we’re totally looking forward to some awesome videos), but according to Chignoli, the really important contribution here is the framework rather than the robot itself:

The acrobatic motions that we demonstrate on our small-scale humanoid are less about the actual acrobatics and more about what the ability to perform such feats implies for both our hardware as well as our control framework. The motions are important in terms of the robot’s capabilities because we are proving, at least in simulation, that we can replicate the dynamic feats of Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS robot using an entirely different actuation scheme (proprioceptive electromagnetic motors vs. hydraulic actuators, respectively). Verification that proprioceptive actuators can achieve the necessary torque density to perform such motions while retaining the advantages of low mechanical impedance and high-bandwidth torque control is important as people consider how to design the next generation of dynamic humanoid robots. Furthermore, the acrobatic motions demonstrate the ability of our “actuator-aware” motion planner to generate feasible motion plans that push the boundaries of what our robot can do. 

The MIT Humanoid Robot: Design, Motion Planning, and Control For Acrobatic Behaviors, by Matthew Chignoli, Donghyun Kim, Elijah Stanger-Jones, and Sangbae Kim from MIT and UMass Amherst, will be presented at Humanoids 2020 this July. You can read a preprint on arXiv here.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
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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