Researchers in Australia have been working on ways to make bipedal robots cheaper and more effective. University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Pauline Pounds has explored the possibilities of creating a simplified system to make two-legged robots more accessible.
“I always wanted to build the amazing walking machines you see in science fiction and I always wondered why they were so hard to build,” Dr. Pounds said. “Walking in robots is very complex, and a lot of research and funding has gone into dealing with this complexity.
“Famous walking robots such as those developed at Boston Dynamics, Schaft andHonda are expected to have price tags in excess of one million dollars. Our approach promises to reduce the cost to only a few thousand dollars.”
A steady vision for walking assistants
The innovative system uses control moment gyroscopes to keep the robots vertical and to allow them to independently understand where they place their feet. This, in turn, means cheaper sensors and actuators can be used for sensing and movement.
“We are starting by building very small chicken-sized robots to prove the underlying science and solve engineering problems, before moving up to larger human-sized platforms that can carry useful payloads, like your weekly shopping," Pounds explained. "From there, we could size the robot up or down to suit the particular application and need - from something the size of a rat, up to a human-piloted machine as big as a mining haul truck.”
Dr. Pounds said that although there has been great progress in building complex walking machines their applications are often limited. She went on to outline how the excessive cost of most bipedal robots is wrapped up in their capabilities that extend beyond their basic walking functions. “A large fraction of their cost comes in providing capabilities beyond simple walking, such as off-road terrain handling,” she said.
Simple robots can help in everyday life
She refers to the many bipedal robots we have seen developed in the last few years that have remarkable abilities such as doing backflips and even walk through fire. Now Pounds reasons that by making simpler robots cheaper we can leverage their abilities into broader applications. “However, there are many applications that could use walking machines - such a grocery delivery, compound security, and human mobility - that only need to deal with simpler terrain.”
These kinds of robots are far more adaptive than their rolling counterparts, such as Marty the supermarket assistant, who is generally unstable and requires absolutely smooth surfaces to navigate. Pounds applications tilt towards assisting with aged care - which seems like it is going to need all the help it can get.
Globally our population is aging and in many places around the world like the US, there is a skilled workforce deficit. This opens the way for robots to slip into service and care roles and cheap, simple bipedal robots might just be the answer.
Dr. Pounds’ research paper Towards the Tiny Giant Robot - A Low-Cost Gyroscopically Stabilised Biped won the best paper at the Australasian Conference on Robotics and Automation.