Forget about mimicking a human face, it’s hard to even get robots to walk. Humans have it easy — dozens of tiny muscles keep us upright and constantly adjust so we that don’t fall down. But who says robots need to move like humans? Researchers throughout the country are taking inspiration from nature to develop robots that can move faster and over more diverse terrain than anything we’ve seen to date.
The results are both awesome and downright creepy.
Researchers at MIT are looking to cheetahs as the inspiration for their latest roving robot. The world’s fastest predator, cheetahs can go from zero to 60 miles per hour (96.5 kilometers an hour) in a few seconds, pumping their legs and spines in tandem to reach a full, galloping speed. MIT’s version is slightly less sleek than a big cat, though its assemblage of gears, batteries, and electric motors balancing on four legs does weigh as much as its feline inspiration.
Mimicking a cheetah’s gait, MIT’s robotic version has run at 10 mph (16 kph) on a treadmill and should be able to reach about 30 mph (48 kph) bounding untethered through a field (operating without an umbilical is a huge advance). It can also jump over objects almost 13 inches tall thanks to its custom-designed, high-torque-density electric motor.
What’s really neat about the cheetah is that the MIT researchers behind it have seemingly solved some of the problems other robot builders have faced. When we think about a robot that can bend and flex enough to bound and jump without falling apart, we think about fuel-guzzling engines and hydraulic systems; the same systems that keep jets flying under control can obviously help a robot run. But the cheetah doesn’t. It’s powered exclusively by electric motors and batteries, making it quiet and relatively efficient.
But if the cheetah’s open-frame design makes it susceptible to wear and tear, a team from Soft Robotics has come up with a very different type of robot that is miles ahead in the durability game. Part of a new class of robots called “soft robots,” it’s designed to undulate effortlessly through fire and ice while still being strong enough to survive a hit and run.
The X-shaped robot is made of silicone elastomer, polyaramid fabric, and hollow glass microspheres. This gives it a thick skin. The robot has been tested in temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 degrees Celsius), can withstand winds up to 25 mph (40 kph), cross two-inch deep (five cm) puddles, walk through fire, and survive an acid shower. But skin isn’t the robot’s only strong suit. It’s also incredibly durable. Pressurized from the inside to 20 pounds per square inch, it can still walk after being run over by a car.
The downside of this resilient robot is that it can’t really do anything on its own, save undulate around for about two hours before its batteries die. But this makes it a great platform for small payloads. The little robot can lift objects up to 7.5 pounds (3.4 kilograms) or hold up a 17.6 pound (8kg) payload. It could carry a camera pretty easily, turning it into an autonomous spy machine.
But neither of these robots are poised to start offering us a helping hand anytime soon. In the meantime, we are designing devices to help us with the things we already do. Like run.
A team from Arizona State University is working on a jet pack that could give any decently in-shape person the ability to run a four-minute mile. The 4MM project is a robotics project done in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aimed at developing the technologies that can aide the able-bodied, in this case enhancing our already expertly engineered bodies’ ability to run.
The prototype is a wearable jetpack that provides just enough thrust behind the wearer to increase his speed and minimize energy expenditure without knocking him off balance. And it works. In a mile-long test run, the subject was able to shave 18 seconds off his time despite the 11-pound jet pack he was carrying. It might seem trivial, but imagine taking this technology into a war situation. Shaving seconds off the time to run into or out of a dangerous environment could be the different between life and death for a soldier.
The future of mobility robotics is poised to go in some interesting directions. On the one hand we’ve got the tech that might turn soldiers into cyborgs, and on the other hand we’ve got resilient, nature-inspired robots which might be able take our place in dangerous situations. In either case, things are probably going to get weirder before they become the norm.