This MIT Robot Wants to Use Your Reflexes to Walk and Balance

Post Syndicated from Erico Guizzo original

The robot is called Little HERMES, and it’s currently just a pair of little legs, about a third the size of an average adult. It can step and jump in place or walk a short distance while supported by a gantry. While that in itself is not very impressive, the researchers say their approach could help bring capable disaster robots closer to reality. They explain that, despite recent advances, building fully autonomous robots with motor and decision-making skills comparable to those of humans remains a challenge. That’s where a more advanced teleoperation system could help. 

The researchers, João Ramos, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Sangbae Kim, director of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, describe the project in this week’s issue of Science Robotics. In the paper, they argue that existing teleoperation systems often can’t effectively match the operator’s motions to that of a robot. In addition, conventional systems provide no physical feedback to the human teleoperator about what the robot is doing. Their new approach addresses these two limitations, and to see how it would work in practice, they built Little HERMES.

Early this year, the MIT researchers wrote an in-depth article for IEEE Spectrum about the project, which includes Little HERMES and also its big brother, HERMES (for Highly Efficient Robotic Mechanisms and Electromechanical System). In that article, they describe the two main components of the system:

[…] We are building a telerobotic system that has two parts: a humanoid capable of nimble, dynamic behaviors, and a new kind of two-way human-machine interface that sends your motions to the robot and the robot’s motions to you. So if the robot steps on debris and starts to lose its balance, the operator feels the same instability and instinctively reacts to avoid falling. We then capture that physical response and send it back to the robot, which helps it avoid falling, too. Through this human-robot link, the robot can harness the operator’s innate motor skills and split-second reflexes to keep its footing.

You could say we’re putting a human brain inside the machine.

Here’s more footage of the experiments, showing Little HERMES stepping and jumping in place, walking a few steps forward and backward, and balancing. Watch until the end to see a compilation of unsuccessful stepping experiments. Poor Little HERMES!

In the new Science Robotics paper, the MIT researchers explain how they solved one of the key challenges in making their teleoperation system effective:

The challenge of this strategy lies in properly mapping human body motion to the machine while simultaneously informing the operator how closely the robot is reproducing the movement. Therefore, we propose a solution for this bilateral feedback policy to control a bipedal robot to take steps, jump, and walk in synchrony with a human operator. Such dynamic synchronization was achieved by (i) scaling the core components of human locomotion data to robot proportions in real time and (ii) applying feedback forces to the operator that are proportional to the relative velocity between human and robot.

Little HERMES is now taking its first steps, quite literally, but the researchers say they hope to use robotic legs with similar design as part of a more advanced humanoid. One possibility they’ve envisioned is a fast-moving quadruped robot that could run through various kinds of terrain and then transform into a bipedal robot that would use its hands to perform dexterous manipulations. This could involve merging some of the robots the MIT researchers have built in their lab, possibly creating hybrids between Cheetah and HERMES, or Mini Cheetah and Little HERMES. We can’t wait to see what the resulting robots will look like.

[ Science Robotics ]