SupraPed Robots Will Use Trekking Poles to Hike Across Rough Terrain

Smart poles packed with sensors could give robots more stability in a disaster site

2 min read
SupraPed Robots Will Use Trekking Poles to Hike Across Rough Terrain
Image: Stanford AI Lab

Last year at the Stanford-Berkeley Robotics Symposium, we saw some tantalizing slides from Oussama Khatib about a humanoid robot that used trekking poles to balance itself. We were promised more details later, and the Stanford researchers delivered at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) this year, where they presented the concept of SupraPed robots.

The idea is equipping robots with a pair of special trekking poles packed with sensors that, according to the researchers, "transforms biped humanoids into tripeds or quadrupeds or more generally, SupraPeds." By using these smart poles to steady themselves, the robots would be able to navigate through "cluttered and unstructured environments such as disaster sites."

Humans have had a lot of practice walking around on two legs. Robots have not, which isn't their fault, but at the moment, even the best robots are working up to the level of a toddler. Some of them aren't bad at flat terrain, but as we saw in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials, varied terrain is very, very difficult. It doesn't just require the physical ability to move and balance, but also the awareness to know what path to take and where feet should be placed.

As good at this as humans are, even we get into situations where our balance and movements with our legs and feet simply aren't enough. And when this happens, we scramble. If we're fancy, we might use a walking stick or hiking poles for balance assistance, and if we're not fancy, sometimes an outstretched arm is enough. Similar to the research we looked at yesterday, this is an entirely different philosophy about obstacles: instead of things to be avoided, they're things that can potentially be used to complete tasks that would otherwise be unsafe or impossible:

This is all simulation, and the programming behind it is fairly complex. The robot (when they throw a real robot into this mix) will have sophisticated 3D vision, tactile sensing, and a special set of actuated ski poles:

The SupraPed platform includes a pair smart walking staffs, a whole-body multi-contact control and planning software system, and real-time reactive controllers that integrate both tactile and visual information. Moreover, to bypass the difficulty of programming fully autonomous robot controllers, the SupraPed platform contains a remote haptic teleoperation system which allows the operator remotely give high level command.

An easy way to think of this, in terms of stability, is like you're taking a biped and turning it into an on-demand triped (?) or quadruped. But since you're relying on poles instead of limbs, you don't have to make any compromises when it comes to grasping and manipulation.

We're not sure when we're going to get to see a real humanoid robot using techniques like these, but there is this big competition for humanoid robots coming up next year where they'll have to traverse rough terrain. I wonder if ATLAS is allowed to use a walking stick?

"SupraPeds: Humanoid Contact-Supported Locomotion for 3D Unstructured Environments," by Oussama Khatib and Shu-Yun Chung from Stanford University, was presented last month at ICRA 2014 in Hong Kong. The project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

[ SupraPeds ]

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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