Humans legs are a complex marvel of evolution. Our pelvis and hip joints allow for some incredible, energy efficient bipedal movement roboticists find hard to replicate. Sure, some labs have churned out cool ambulatory bots that perform well in competition, but just as many collapse when given a swift kick to the side.
Dr. Dennis Hong and his colleagues at UCLA's Robots and Mechanics Lab think they have an elegant solution to the bipedal robot problem: build the droid to move sideways. According to Hong, "One of the reasons bipedal walking is difficult is because of an offset in the hip joints. This creates undesirable oscillatory moments that force the robots to take small, calculated steps."
"However," Hong continues. "When taking steps side to side, these moments don't appear." He also called out the knee joints of most forward-walking bipedal robots and explained that by twisting the knees 90 degrees, removing the ankle and simplifying the foot his team created a more energy efficient and less trip prone robot.
RoMeLa ran computer simulations with the new robot design and found they could push things even farther. "By exploiting the fact that there's no need for biological systems such as blood vessels and nerves in a robot mechanism we can add a contiguous knee that adds more modes of locomotion."
The computer simulation showed a sideways walker with circular knee and a lower leg that swings a full 360 degrees. This simple design allows the robot to climb over the lip of a window sill and even climb stairs.
Computer simulations are great and all, but the real world is where it's at and Hong and his team have just begun to make good on their dream of sideways walking robots. Their initial prototype was a simple two legged droid with a silly cardboard box for a head. It's made of aluminum and carbon fiber, has one degree of freedom at each hip, one degree of freedom and each knee and floppy feet that have a little give for navigating terrain.
In the video, the silly robot moves side to side with ease, navigating a simple ramp and even a cluttered floor of random particle boards. The robot did all this with an ease, grace and speed I've not seen in the forward walking bipedal robots.
And this is just the beginning. RoMeLa teased fancier sideways walking bots at the end of this video, including a four legged thing and the aforementioned stair walker with swinging knees. The future of robotics, or at least part of it, may lie in the hands of the people willing to break the human mold and exploit the advantages of electronics and carbon fiber.
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