This MIT Robot Wants to Use Your Reflexes to Walk and Balance

A new two-way teleoperation system sends your motions to the robot and the robot's motions to you

5 min read
MIT's Little HERMES wants to borrow your brain.
Photo: João Ramos

MIT researchers have demonstrated a new kind of teleoperation system that allows a two-legged robot to “borrow” a human operator’s physical skills to move with greater agility. The system works a bit like those haptic suits from the Spielberg movie “Ready Player One.” But while the suits in the film were used to connect humans to their VR avatars, the MIT suit connects the operator to a real robot.

The robot is called Little HERMES, and it’s currently just a pair of little legs, about a third the size of an average adult. It can step and jump in place or walk a short distance while supported by a gantry. While that in itself is not very impressive, the researchers say their approach could help bring capable disaster robots closer to reality. They explain that, despite recent advances, building fully autonomous robots with motor and decision-making skills comparable to those of humans remains a challenge. That’s where a more advanced teleoperation system could help. 

The researchers, João Ramos, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Sangbae Kim, director of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, describe the project in this week’s issue of Science Robotics. In the paper, they argue that existing teleoperation systems often can’t effectively match the operator’s motions to that of a robot. In addition, conventional systems provide no physical feedback to the human teleoperator about what the robot is doing. Their new approach addresses these two limitations, and to see how it would work in practice, they built Little HERMES.

MIT Little HERMES The main components of MIT’s bipedal robot Little HERMES: (A) Custom actuators designed to withstand impact and capable of producing high torque. (B) Lightweight limbs with low inertia and fast leg swing. (C) Impact-robust and lightweight foot sensors with three-axis contact force sensor. (D) Ruggedized IMU to estimates the robot’s torso posture, angular rate, and linear acceleration. (E) Real-time computer sbRIO 9606 from National Instruments for robot control. (F) Two three-cell lithium-polymer batteries in series. (G) Rigid and lightweight frame to minimize the robot mass. Image: Science Robotics

Early this year, the MIT researchers wrote an in-depth article for IEEE Spectrum about the project, which includes Little HERMES and also its big brother, HERMES (for Highly Efficient Robotic Mechanisms and Electromechanical System). In that article, they describe the two main components of the system:

[...] We are building a telerobotic system that has two parts: a humanoid capable of nimble, dynamic behaviors, and a new kind of two-way human-machine interface that sends your motions to the robot and the robot’s motions to you. So if the robot steps on debris and starts to lose its balance, the operator feels the same instability and instinctively reacts to avoid falling. We then capture that physical response and send it back to the robot, which helps it avoid falling, too. Through this human-robot link, the robot can harness the operator’s innate motor skills and split-second reflexes to keep its footing.

You could say we’re putting a human brain inside the machine.

MIT Little HERMES teleoperation system The human-machine interface built by the MIT researchers for controlling Little HERMES is different from conventional ones in that it relies on the operator’s reflexes to improve the robot’s stability. The researchers call it the balance-feedback interface, or BFI. The main modules of the BFI include: (A) Custom interface attachments for torso and feet designed to capture human motion data at high speed (1 kHz). (B) Two underactuated modules to track the position and orientation of the torso and apply forces to the operator. (C) Each actuation module has three DoFs, one of which is a push/pull rod actuated by a DC brushless motor. (D) A series of linkages with passive joints connected to the operator’s feet and track their spatial translation. (E) Real-time controller cRIO 9082 from National Instruments to close the BFI control loop. (F) Force plate to estimated the operator’s center of pressure position and measure the shear and normal components of the operator’s net contact force. Image: Science Robotics

Here’s more footage of the experiments, showing Little HERMES stepping and jumping in place, walking a few steps forward and backward, and balancing. Watch until the end to see a compilation of unsuccessful stepping experiments. Poor Little HERMES!

In the new Science Robotics paper, the MIT researchers explain how they solved one of the key challenges in making their teleoperation system effective:

The challenge of this strategy lies in properly mapping human body motion to the machine while simultaneously informing the operator how closely the robot is reproducing the movement. Therefore, we propose a solution for this bilateral feedback policy to control a bipedal robot to take steps, jump, and walk in synchrony with a human operator. Such dynamic synchronization was achieved by (i) scaling the core components of human locomotion data to robot proportions in real time and (ii) applying feedback forces to the operator that are proportional to the relative velocity between human and robot.

Little HERMES is now taking its first steps, quite literally, but the researchers say they hope to use robotic legs with similar design as part of a more advanced humanoid. One possibility they’ve envisioned is a fast-moving quadruped robot that could run through various kinds of terrain and then transform into a bipedal robot that would use its hands to perform dexterous manipulations. This could involve merging some of the robots the MIT researchers have built in their lab, possibly creating hybrids between Cheetah and HERMES, or Mini Cheetah and Little HERMES. We can’t wait to see what the resulting robots will look like.

[ Science Robotics ]

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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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