How this robot mastered graceful walking

Engineers at Georgia Tech have developed an algorithm that allows robots to walk, not with jerky, mechanical steps, but with fluid human ones. 

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology may have just found a new market for the shoe industry, with the invention of a robot called DURUS that not only walks like a human, but wears shoes like one.

Most people imagine robots with the jerky movements and inhuman stares of science fiction B-movies or Styx’s 1983 hit, "Mr. Roboto." But Georgia Tech’s robotics engineers say that while flat feet and rigid appendages might have been a good start for the field, the future of robotics lies in mimicking human movement.

“It’s just one step forward for robotics,” says project researcher Christian Hubicki in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “but it is a big step forward for the mathematics behind more human robot movement.”

Thus far, most robots are engineered to do simple, repetitive tasks, such as assembly line work. But recent robotics development is tending towards projects that allow robots to interact with the human world, such as a housekeeping robot.

In order to interact with human spaces, researchers say, robots have to be able to navigate stairways and carpeted halls, something difficult for flat-footed or wheeled robots.

To that end, DURUS researchers examined the infinitesimal movements that add up to human walking. Although taking a step may seem like a basic movement, many smaller, surprisingly graceful movements must work together to accomplish it. When a human steps, for example, their hip flexes, their knee bends, and the heel of the foot strikes the ground first before the rest of the foot falls in a fluid motion.

The whole process is surprisingly efficient in terms of energy use, the researchers discovered.

“Flat-footed robots demonstrated that walking was possible,” Georgia Tech lab director Aaron Ames said in a press release. “But they’re a starting point, like a propeller-powered airplane. It gets the job done, but it’s not a jet engine. We want to build something better, something that can walk up and down stairs or run across a field.”

After creating a raft of equations that, when printed, could carpet a football field, and tinkering with DURUS’s algorithms for several days, the robot took its first steps at dawn last week.

Dr. Hubicki told the Monitor that the real significance of this development in robotics lies in its mathematical foundations. Now that scientists know how to make a robot strike with its heel, for example, they can engineer future robots to make similarly interesting movements.

With its new, more realistic footfalls, Georgia Tech’s robot moves much more like a human than other robots, some of which have garnered negative attention for their eerily not-quite-human movements. When Google parted ways with Boston Dynamics – the robotics start-up known for their massive war dogs and unflappable box-carrying robots – rumors swirled that the decision was driven by fears about humanoid robots.

Just last December, the Monitor reported on a robot created by Nadia Thalmann of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Some found that the robot triggered the Uncanny Valley effect, a term created by Sigmund Freud to describe the point at which something appears neither so alien as to be comfortingly different nor so real as to seem familiar, but in the worrying gulf between.

Speaking of familiar, what’s with the sneakers? According to Hubicki, the sneakers cushion the robot’s arched metal foot from the ground. Currently, the robot is restricted to indoors, walking laps on the AMBER Lab Treadmill.

“Now,” says Hubicki, “the real game is taking the robot out into the wild.”

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