Getting Robots To Walk Less Like C-3PO and More Like Luke Skywalker

Robot developers have their work cut out for them. Robotics is a field where they will never “arrive”. Even if an engineer has made the most advanced technological achievement to date, there is always room for improvement. This is especially true when it comes to bipedal robots (robots that walk on two feet). The human intellect and body is so complex, robotic engineers will never be able to mimic it exactly. But one group of Swiss researchers are attempting a specific improvement when it comes to bipedal robots: walking. It’s not getting a robot to walk that is the problem. The problem is getting a robot to walk like a normal human instead of like C-3P0. That is the problem.

While being fluent in over 6,000,000 forms of communication would be helpful, we’re not quite there yet. For now, developers are just focusing on getting a robot to walk like a normal human. Things like stairs, crowds and other objects keep a robot from being able to be effectively mobile. That’s exactly what one group of Swiss researchers is programing their robot COMAN (Compliant Humanoid) to do. And to accomplish this, they’re programming COMAN to learn its own body in order to walk more naturally.

COMAN, a headless robot, is designed to learn how to walk naturally like a human. The researchers accomplish this by using elastic joints which are more flexible. That, along with a control algorithm that helps COMAN understand its own body, teaches it how to walk more gracefully. The algorithm focuses on the symmetries in COMAN’s build. This does much more than make for a more natural appearance. But with a more natural gait, comes improved functions in other areas as well. For example, if researchers can help a robot to walk more naturally, it will be able to carry a variety of objects while walking more effectively. It will also allow the robot to traverse difficult terrain, like stairs for example. Also, this allows the robot to react to surprises that come along it’s path; everything from a gentle push due to a large crowd, to objects being placed in front of its path.

Science is still a long way off from this technology being perfected. For one thing, this robot would need some sort of “head” in order for it to communicate in over 6,000,000 forms of communication. But eventually, when this type of robot is ready to interact with humans, the possibilities are endless. Imagine a day when you hire a moving company, and a bunch of robots come to your house to move your furniture for you. They’re carrying tables together, moving around objects, up and down stairs, all without scratching the walls. Or on a more serious note, these robots could be used as a part of search and rescue teams. They’d be able to navigate rubble, remove large objects, maybe even carry people. How is this possible? Because they’ve learned to walk more naturally. And that simple improvement can lead to so many others.

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