This Robot Was Inspired by a Gymnast
Matthew Greenwood posted on March 21, 2019 |
Engineers are working on a humanoid robot with extended human-like movement range.

A team of researchers at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) have found a new inspiration for designing a robot that can move more like a human: an Olympic gymnast.

Humanoid robots are getting more nimble and sophisticated. But it’s still a real challenge to get robots to do what humans can do, even with complex hardware and innovative software working together. Robotic limbs and joints simply do not have the flexibility and agility of human muscle systems, relying instead on bulky actuators and other hardware. So, while humanoid robots can walk, climb or jump, they still do not have the range of movement we humans enjoy.

The team has created a 3D-printed model of a new humanoid robot called Nadia—named after Olympic gold medallist Nadia Comaneci. The mockup, which contains most of the components that will be on the real robot, allows engineers to plan how its components will work together, make sure everything fits fit properly, and test if the actuators and joints will give the robot the range of motion and flexibility the designers intend.

Instead of using electric actuators that many other robots use, Nadia will be powered by hydraulics, using Moog’s Integrated Smart Actuators (ISAs). Those plug-and-play actuators are 3D-printed out of titanium and feature integrated servo-valves, control electronics, sensors, and onboard communications. While they do have a better power-to-weight ratio than human muscles, they are also bulkier—making it a challenge to design the joints around them, especially since they need to give Nadia the range of motion that lets the robot squat, crawl, sit, kneel and perform other movements.

The Nadia project—funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR)—has a three-year timeline. Nadia is intended to function in indoor environments where stairs, ladders, cluttered floors and other obstacles would require that the robot have a range of motion comparable to a human. The ONR is particularly interested in robots that can work aboard ships for maintenance, inspection, firefighting and other functions.

IHMC’s work on improving how the Atlas robot walks.

With Nadia, the IHMC hopes to extend humanoid robot functionality beyond the limits of existing humanoid robots it’s worked on like Boston Dynamics’ Atlas and the Valkyrie for NASA.

“We’re hoping to be able to demonstrate […] speed and power with Nadia, while also maintaining a really high range of motion,” said Robert Griffin, research scientist at IHMC.

Read more about developments in humanoid robots at Mobile Robots Poised to Become Safer, More Common.

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