A few years ago, we wrote about NABiRoS, a bipedal robot from Dennis Hong’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at UCLA. Unlike pretty much any other biped we’d ever seen, NABiRoS had a unique kinematic configuration that had it using its two legs to walk sideways, which offered some surprising advantages.
As it turns out, bipeds aren’t the only robots that can potentially benefit from a bit of a kinematic rethink. RoMeLa has redesigned quadrupedal robots too—rather than model them after a quadrupedal animal like a dog or a horse, RoMeLa’s ALPHRED robots use four legs arranged symmetrically around the body of the robot, allowing it to walk, run, hop, and jump, as well as manipulate and carry objects, karate chop through boards, and even roller skate on its butt. This robot can do it all.
Impressive, right? This is ALPHRED 2, and its predecessor, the original ALPHRED, was introduced at IROS 2018. Both ALPHREDs are axisymmetric about the vertical axis, meaning that they don’t have a front or a back and are perfectly happy to walk in any direction you like. Traditional quadrupeds like Spot or Laikago can also move sideways and backwards, but their leg arrangement makes them more efficient at moving in one particular direction, and also results in some curious compromises like a preference for going down stairs backwards. ANYmal is a bit more flexible in that it can reverse its knees, but it’s still got that traditional quadrupedal two-by-two configuration.
ALPHRED 2’s four symmetrical limbs can be used for a whole bunch of stuff. It can do quadrupedal walking and running, and it’s able to reach stable speeds of up to 1.5 m/s. If you want bipedal walking, it can do that NABiRoS-style, although it’s still a bit fragile at the moment. Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms. A tripedal compromise configuration, with three legs and one arm, is more stable and allows the robot to do things like push buttons, open doors, and destroy property. And thanks to passive wheels under its body, ALPHRED 2 can use its limbs to quickly and efficiently skate around:
The impressive performance of the robot comes courtesy of a custom actuator that RoMeLa designed specifically for dynamic legged locomotion. They call it BEAR, or Back-Drivable Electromechanical Actuator for Robots. These are optionally liquid-cooled motors capable of proprioceptive sensing, consisting of a DC motor, a single stage 10:1 planetary gearbox, and channels through the back of the housing that coolant can be pumped through. The actuators have a peak torque of 32 Nm, and a continuous torque of about 8 Nm with passive air cooling. With liquid cooling, the continuous torque jumps to about 21 Nm. And in the videos above, ALPHRED 2 isn’t even running the liquid cooling system, suggesting that it’s capable of much higher sustained performance.
Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms.Photo: RoMeLa
RoMeLa has produced a bunch of very creative robots, and we appreciate that they also seem to produce a bunch of very creative demos showing why their unusual approaches are in fact (at least in some specific cases) somewhat practical. With the recent interest in highly dynamic robots that can be reliably useful in environments infested with humans, we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting tricks the next (presumably liquid-cooled) version will be able to do.
[ RoMeLa ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.