While great strides have recently been made in robotics, robots still cannot get to the same places that people can. They have trouble jumping over gaps, squeezing through tight spaces, climbing ladders, crossing over ponds on top of stepping stones, climbing cluttered stairs, maneuvering over rubble, and getting through dense forests.
To achieve this level of maneuverability in robots, researchers at IHMC look toward nature. Inspired by the speed of cheetahs, the endurance of horses, the maneuverability of monkeys, and the versatility of humans, IHMC researchers are on a quest to develop legged robots that are fast, efficient, and graceful, with the mobility required to access many of the same places that humans can. Their research takes many forms, including biologically inspired hardware design, bipedal and quadrupedal walking, balance, and push-recovery control algorithms, and exoskeleton design and control.
Four legged (quadrupedal) robots offer better stability than two-legged (bipedal) robots, with reduced complexity versus six and eight legs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recognizes the importance of advancing quadrupedal locomotion algorithms through its Learning Locomotion program. Researchers at IHMC are part of this program, which began its second phase in the fall of 2007. Through expert knowledge of robotics, locomotion, planning, and artificial intelligence, IHMC researchers have written algorithms for enabling a small quadrupedal robot called Little Dog to walk quickly over various types of rough terrain.
Although a quadrupedal robot offers increased stability, a bipedal robot has the potential to match some of the impressive mobility capabilities of a human. The current state of the art of bipedal robots limits them to very structured environments with almost perfect knowledge of the terrain and almost no unplanned physical interaction with the environment. Almost all bipedal robots fall over, if given an unexpected push. Researchers at IHMC are focusing on increasing the stability of bipedal robots through push recovery algorithms. These algorithms will enable bipedal robots to recover from a significant unexpected push, by taking a series of steps to recapture their balance. To test their theories, they have designed and built a bipedal robot and are currently working on enabling the robot to recover from a significant push.
Although legged animals can attain speeds of 40 miles per hour and greater, only wheeled, not legged, machines can currently achieve these speeds. By studying the anatomy, kinematics, and structure of the legs of fast animals, including cheetahs and ostriches, researchers at IHMC have developed a robotic leg architecture that has the potential to propel a bipedal or quadrupedal robot at speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour. In comparison to typical robotic leg design, this new leg offers reduced complexity, faster speeds, better energetics, and better adaptability to irregular terrain.
In addition to providing mobility to robots through legs, researchers at IHMC are also working toward providing mobility assistance to humans through robotic exoskeletons. People with a lower extremity paralysis are generally limited to wheeled devices for mobility assistance. IHMC researchers have designed powered and un powered robotic exoskeletons to enable someone with no or limited unaided mobility to be able to walk with the assistance of the robotic device.