A robot in a University
of Michigan lab can run
like a human—a feat that represents the height of agility and efficiency for a
two-legged machine. With a peak pace of 6.8 miles per hour, MABEL is believed
to be the world’s fastest bipedal robot with knees.
“It’s stunning,” says Jessy Grizzle, a professor in
the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I have
never seen a machine doing a motion like this.”
MABEL was built in 2008 in collaboration with Jonathan Hurst,
who was then a doctoral student at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon
University. Grizzle and
U-M doctoral students Koushil Sreenath and Hae-Won Park
have spent the years since ratcheting up MABEL’s training. They’ve been
progressively improving the feedback algorithms that enable the robot to keep
its balance while reacting to its environment in real time.
MABEL started off walking smoothly and quickly over flat
surfaces. Then it moved on to uneven ground. It took its first real jog in late
July (2011), and with that, Sreenath met the ultimate goal of his research just
days before he was scheduled to defend his thesis.
Few robots can run, and the researchers say no machine but
MABEL can do it with such a human-like gait. Its weight is distributed like a
person’s. It has a heavier torso and light, flexible legs with springs that act
like tendons. MABEL is in the air for 40% of each stride, “like a real
runner,” Grizzle said. Other running robots are almost speed-walking.
Their so-called flight phase when both feet are off the ground lasts for less
than 10% of each step.
“We envision some extraordinary potential applications
for legged robot research: exoskeletons that enable wheelchair-bound people to
walk again or that give rescuers super-human abilities, and powered prosthetic
limbs that behave like their biological counterparts,” says developer
Hurst, who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical,
Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University.
Two-legged robots with good running form would also have the
advantage of being able to travel over rough terrain and inside places built
for humans. They could one-day serve as robotic soldiers or rescuers, the
“The robotics community has been trying to come up with
machines that can go places where humans can go, so a human morphology is
important,” Grizzle says. “If you would like to send in robots to
search for people when a house is on fire, it probably needs to be able to go
up and down stairs, step over the baby’s toys on the floor, and maneuver in an
environment where wheels and tracks may not be appropriate.”
Wheels are a great way to move across flat surfaces, Sreenath
says, but when the ground gets rocky, two legs are much more efficient.
“Imagine a future where you don’t have to first clear a
path and build roads before a vehicle could move around,” Sreenath says,
“but rather, we have a class of running machines like animals that could
transport you around with no roads, but with a smooth and efficient ride.”