University of Pennsylvania Unleashes Robot Jerboa Upon the World

Thanks to an actuated tail, this robot has hops

2 min read
University of Pennsylvania Unleashes Robot Jerboa Upon the World
Thanks to an actuated tail, this robot has hops.
Photo: UPenn Kodlab

I don’t think any of us ever knew just how badly we wanted a robotic jerboa until suddenly, someone built a robotic jerboa. A jerboa is sort of like a gerbil, except crossed with a kangaroo, at least as far as mobility is concerned. Jerboas bounce around on two absurdly long legs in what seems like a very dynamic and efficient type of motion, especially if you take the tail into account.

img Aww, isn’t it cute? Photo: Cliff via Flickr

Avik De, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to try and build one based on the venerable RHex hexapod platform:

“My first thought was to build a robot that runs like RHex on two legs. So, full of visions of the running velociraptors in Jurassic Park, I set out to create a robot with a powerful tail, and two RHex-like legs.”

This is not that robot.

In case you missed it in the video, this robot only has actuated hips, not legs, plus a tail that it can move up and down. The legs have a spring, and by actuating the tail in a sort of anti-damping motion, the springs can be compressed, causing the robot to jump due entirely to the motion of the tail: in other words, the tail is driving the legs. The tail idea in general comes from UC Berkeley, but this is likely the first time a tail has been used in this particular way on a robot.

UPenn sees its jerboa robot as a platform that can be used to investigate all kinds of locomotion, including “sitting, standing, walking, hopping, running, turning, leaping, and more.” Based on what they’ve done with RHex as a research platform, we’re expecting acrobatics.

But what about the robot with the two RHex legs and the tail? It definitely exists. De also calls it Jerboa, and here it is on video:

I’ll confess to not entirely understanding how these two different robotic iterations of the jerboa are related, but De will be presenting a paper on the jerboa at ICRA next month in Seattle, so we’ll make sure to get all the details for you then.

[ UPenn Kodlab ]

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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

“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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