Boing Goes the Trampoline Robot

If you can't afford a fancy quadruped with springy legs, just use a springy floor instead

4 min read
Quadruped Robot on a Trampoline
Roboticists from Zhejiang University in China are using a quadruped and a trampoline to study dynamic jumping robots.
Image: Zhejiang University

There are a handful of quadrupedal robots out there that are highly dynamic, with the ability to run and jump, but those robots tend to be rather expensive and complicated, requiring powerful actuators and legs with elasticity. Boxing Wang, a Ph.D. student in the College of Control Science and Engineering at Zhejiang University in China, contacted us to share a project he’s been working to investigate quadruped jumping with simple, affordable hardware.

“The motivation for this project is quite simple,” Boxing says. “I wanted to study quadrupedal jumping control, but I didn’t have custom-made powerful actuators, and I didn’t want to have to design elastic legs. So I decided to use a trampoline to make a normal servo-driven quadruped robot to jump.”

Boxing and his colleagues had wanted to study quadrupedal running and jumping, so they built this robot with the most powerful servos they had access to: Kondo KRS6003RHV actuators, which have a maximum torque of 6 Nm. After some simple testing, it became clear that the servos were simply not fast or powerful enough to get the robot to jump, and that an elastic element was necessary to store energy to help the robot get off the ground. 

“Normally, people would choose elastic legs,” says Boxing. “But nobody in my lab knew for sure how to design them. If we tried making elastic legs and we failed to make the robot jump, we couldn’t be sure whether the problem was the legs or the control algorithms. For hardware, we decided that it’s better to start with something reliable, something that definitely won’t be the source of the problem.”

As it turns out, all you need is a trampoline, an inertial measurement unit (IMU), and little tactile switches on the end of each foot to detect touch-down and lift-off events, and you can do some useful jumping research without a jumping robot. And the trampoline has other benefits as well—because it’s stiffer at the edges than at the center, for example, the robot will tend to center itself on the trampoline, and you get some warning before things go wrong. 

“I can’t say that it’s a breakthrough to make a quadruped robot jump on a trampoline,” Boxing tells us. “But I believe this is useful for prototype testing, especially for people who are interested in quadrupedal jumping control but without a suitable robot at hand.”

To learn more about the project, we emailed him some additional questions.

IEEE Spectrum: Where did this idea come from?

Boxing Wang: The idea of the trampoline came while we were drinking milk tea. I don’t know why it came up, maybe someone saw a trampoline in a gym recently. And I don’t remember who proposed it exactly. It was just like someone said it unintentionally. But I realized that a trampoline would be a perfect choice. It’s reliable, easy to buy, and should have a similar dynamic model with the one of jumping with springy legs (we have briefly analyzed this in a paper). So I decided to try the trampoline.

How much do you think you can learn using a quadruped on a trampoline, instead of using a jumping quadruped?

Generally speaking, no contact surfaces are strictly rigid. They all have elasticity. So there are no essential differences between jumping on a trampoline and jumping on a rigid surface. However, using a quadruped on a trampoline can give you more information on how to make use of elasticity to make jumping easier and more efficient. You can use quadruped robots with springy legs to address the same problem, but that usually requires much more time on hardware design. 

We prefer to treat the trampoline experiment as a kind of early test for further real jumping quadruped design. Unless you’re interested in designing an acrobatic robot on a trampoline, a real jumping quadruped is probably a more useful application, and that is our ultimate goal. The point of the trampoline tests is to develop the control algorithms first, and to examine the stability of the general hardware structure. Due to the similarity between jumping on a trampoline with rigid legs and jumping on hard surfaces with springy legs, the control algorithms you develop could be transferred to hard-surface jumping robots. 

“Unless you’re interested in designing an acrobatic robot on a trampoline, a real jumping quadruped is probably a more useful application, and that is our ultimate goal. The point of the trampoline tests is to develop the control algorithms first, and to examine the stability of the general hardware structure”

Do you think that this idea can be beneficial for other kinds of robotics research?

Yes. For jumping quadrupeds with springy legs, the control algorithms could be first designed through trampoline tests using simple rigid legs. And the hardware design for elastic legs could be accelerated with the help of the control algorithms you design. In addition, we believe our work could be a good example of using a position-control robot to realize dynamic motions such as jumping, or even running.

Unlike other dynamic robots, every active joint in our robot is controlled through commercial position-control servos and not custom torque control motors. Most people don’t think that a position-control robot could perform highly dynamic motions such as jumping, because position-control motors usually mean high a gear ratio and slow response. However, our work indicates that, with the help of elasticity, stable jumping could be realized through position-control servos. So for those who already have a position-control robot at hand, they could explore the potential of their robot through trampoline tests. 

Why is teaching a robot to jump important?

There are many scenarios where a jumping robot is needed. For example, a real jumping quadruped could be used to design a running quadruped. Both experience moments when all four legs are in the air, and it is easier to start from jumping and then move to running. Specifically, hopping or pronking can easily transform to bounding if the pitch angle is not strictly controlled. A bounding quadruped is similar to a running rabbit, so for now it can already be called a running quadruped. 

To the best of our knowledge, a practical use of jumping quadrupeds could be planet exploration, just like what SpaceBok was designed for. In a low-gravity environment, jumping is more efficient than walking, and it’s easier to jump over obstacles. But if I had a jumping quadruped on Earth, I would teach it to catch a ball that I throw at it by jumping. It would be fantastic!

That would be fantastic.

Since the whole point of the trampoline was to get jumping software up and running with a minimum of hardware, the next step is to add some springy legs to the robot so that the control system the researchers developed can be tested on hard surfaces. They have a journal paper currently under revision, and Boxing Wang is joined as first author by his adviser Chunlin Zhou, undergrads Ziheng Duan and Qichao Zhu, and researchers Jun Wu and Rong Xiong.

The Conversation (0)

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.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less