Researchers from three universities are collaborating to develop a new
generation of design software that can accurately predict the physical behavior
of robots prior to prototyping.
“One of our goals is to find a way to do virtual testing so that key
flaws can be found on a computer before a prototype is ever built,” says Walid
Taha, adjunct professor of computer science at Rice
University and professor of computer
science at Halmstad University in Sweden. Taha is principal
investigator on a new research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)
that brings together researchers from Rice, Halmstad, and Texas A&M
Taha noted that robots are a study in contrasts. They can perform superhuman
feats and get tripped up by toddler-level tasks. They’re digitally
programmable, but intricacies of their physical behavior go far beyond the
reach of computer simulations.
“Part of the problem is that robots have a foot in both the digital and
physical worlds,” says robotics researcher Marcia O’Malley, professor of
mechanical engineering and materials science at Rice and co-principal
investigator on the new project. “Bridging these worlds is difficult. The
physical world is a messy place with both smooth curves and discontinuities
that are difficult for computers to deal with.”
The upshot is that designing robots today goes something like this: Build
computational models and test in simulation. Build prototype at great expense.
Test prototype and find unanticipated flaw. Revisit simulation. Redesign
Taha, O’Malley, and their collaborators at Rice and Texas A&M hope to
change that with new funding from the NSF’s Cyber-Physical Systems program.
Modeling and simulation of robotics is not a new idea, but the researchers
are taking a new approach. For one thing, they are keen to develop a holistic
system that robotics designers can use from start to finish. Currently,
designers might use four or more different pieces of software at various points
in the design and testing of a new robot. Lack of compatibility from one piece
of software to the next is one problem, but an even larger problem can arise
when entire concepts are missing or treated wholly different.
To address this, the team includes Rice programming language expert Corky
Cartwright, professor of computer science. Taha, principal investigator on the
project, and Cartwright began developing a new programming language called Acumen
under an earlier NSF grant. They’ll continue to develop and expand the language
under the new research program.
Cartwright will work with the project’s two hands-on robotics laboratories—O’Malley’s
Mechatronics and Haptics Interface (MAHI) laboratory at Rice and Aaron Ames’ A&M
Bipedal Experimental Robotics (AMBER) laboratory at Texas A&M—to test the
language and make sure it is up to the task of day-to-day robotic design.
Specifically, the next generation of two-legged walking robots and robotic
assistive devices will be developed by Ames
and O’Malley through this new software infrastructure.
“We should be able to input into the simulation environment any
equation that the mechanical engineers give us,” Cartwright says.
assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of electrical and computer
engineering at Texas A&M, says, “One area that stands to significantly
benefit from these innovations is the design of next-generation prosthetics.
The MAHI lab at Rice is already doing work on upper-body prosthetics, and the
AMBER lab is working on prosthetics for the lower body. With improved modeling
and simulation tools we hope to dramatically accelerate innovation in this