Technology gets ever closer to real robots

Technology is one step closer to a real ‘human-friendly’ robot, according to scientists at the University of Arizona. Researchers Anthony Lewis and Theresa Klein at the university’s Robotics and Neural Systems laboratory have developed a pair of biomechanical legs that closely replicate human locomotion.

Construction of the legs was initially intended as research into how humans learn to walk, and the researchers feel that potentially they could give humans with with spinal injuries the ability to walk again. These legs are a copy of human hips, knees and ankles controlled by Kevlar strap ‘muscles’ and guided by an electronic version of the CPG, or electronic pattern generator at the base of a human spine.

The legs go beyond the capabilities of existing robots, some of which can walk, run and climb stairs; this set of legs is theoretically based on millions of years of human evolution that enable a person to walk with little energy expenditure and without having to think about it. Battery life has been a big problem with any widespread use of ‘walking’ robots, as they require so much energy. The new device is claimed to be able to walk all day without recharging.

Lewis explains that this is a step forward in the design of ‘soft’ robots, as opposed to industrial strength conventional robots. He says with these legs, if you push against them, they’ll give, unlike their ‘hard’ counterparts. A small computer takes readings from load sensors in the feet and adjusts up-and-down motion according to the surface being walked on.

The next step, according to Lewis, is vision capabilities and tactile sensors that can make corrections like the human body does almost automatically – if they stumble they won’t fall down. That CPG connection in the human body acts without conscious volition from the brain – it’s instinctual. The electronic version attempts to replicate that control, which also reduces the energy required to function