What's stronger than a person, yet able to move as intuitively as a human? A tele-operated bipedal disaster robot that melds man's movements with those of a machine.
In a project partially funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers from MIT are working with a bipedal robot dubbed HERMES, who is kept on balance with the help of human "reflexes."
"We want to explore how humans can take over complex actions for the robot," said Joao Ramos, a PhD student from the department of mechanical engineering, in a press statement.
HERMES can already smash soda cans, karate-chop boards in half, and punch through walls, all thanks to the commands that it receives from its human partner.
Ramos is rigged up to an exoskeleton with wires and motors in the same room, and as he moves, his gestures and actions are translated over to HERMES, who mimics them. This allows HERMES to maintain its balance as he carries out high impact momentum-driven tasks that would cause normal bipedal robots to topple over (and humans to break their hands).
HERMES comes equipped with a balance-feedback mechanism: once Ramos gives HERMES a command, he will in turn receive feedback in the form of forces on his waist. So for example, if Ramos senses that HERMES might be on the verge of keeling over post-punch, he can adjust his positioning and weight accordingly to help the robot stay on its feet.
Ramos explained that robots are still slow at processing images. This impedes them from reacting quickly in real time, as they rely on receiving feedback from their onboard cameras before working out what to do. The man-machine combination eradicates this step, and allows HERMES to respond more quickly.
"We'd like to use the human's natural reflexes and coordination," he said. "An example is walking, which is just a process of falling and catching yourself. That's something that feels effortless to us, but it's challenging to program into a robot to do it both dynamically and efficiently."
HERMES is part of a recent wave of teleoperated robots. Over at the Tachi Lab in Japan, researchers have already been working for several years on a selection of dexterous, camera-equipped tele-operated robots that can provide both visual and haptic feedback to their human teleoperators.
Similar to the researchers aims over in Japan, Ramos and his team want someone to wear a full-body suit and goggles, so that they can feel and see everything the robot does (and vice versa) in a remote disaster site.
"We plan to have the robot walk as a quadruped, then stand up on two feet to do difficult manipulation tasks such as open a door or clear an obstacle," said Ramos.