Emergency situations often call for brave men and women to take action against all odds. In situations where human life is threatened or at risk, robots can be utilized to investigate, neutralize threats, and complete reconnaissance missions, all without further risk to human life. Engineers are the driving forces behind many technological advances that may soon alter the way we approach disaster responses.
Animal-like machines are in development to be the first responders in disaster zones, able to move through fire, safely make their way across minefields, and rise to turn a hot door handle or burst through walls. Four-legged robots may be ready for implementation in as soon as the next 10 years.
Sangbae Kim, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, and his team in the Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory are actively working toward a goal that brings these machines into play within a timeframe that allows for the utmost quality product. By borrowing principles from biomechanics, human decision-making, and mechanical design, Kim has been able to construct a service robot that will be able to complete “real, physical work,” including opening doors, breaking through walls, or closing valves.
“Say there are toxic gases leaking in a building, and you need to close a valve inside, but it’s dangerous to send people in,” says Kim. “Now, there is no single robot that can do this kind of job. I want to create a robotic first responder that can potentially do more than a human and help in our lives.”
In an effort to bring this idea of four-legged robots to reality, Kim hopes to combine the two main projects in his lab: the MIT Cheetah, a four legged, 70 lb. robot able to run and jump over obstacles; and HERMES, a two-legged tele-operated robot that is controlled by a remote human operator like a marionette.
“I imagine a robot that can do some physical, dynamic work,” says Kim. “Everybody is trying to find overlapping areas where you’re excited about what you’re working on, and it’s useful. A lot of people are excited to watch sports because when you watch someone moving explosively, it is hypothesized to trigger the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’ and you feel that excitement at the same time. For me, when my robots perform dynamically and balance, I get really excited. And that feeling has encouraged my research.”
Kim joined the MIT staff where he established a Biomimetic Robotics Lab that quickly began working toward the goal of building a cheetah-like robot. “We chose the cheetah because it was the fastest of all land animals, so we learned its features the best, but there are many animals with similarities [to cheetahs],” Kim says.
The team was then able to discern that it may not be the best option to create certain animal behaviors in robots. “A good example in our case is the galloping gait,” Kim says. “It’s beautiful, and in a galloping horse, you hear a ‘da-da-rump, da-da-rump.’ We were obsessed to recreate that. But it turns out galloping has very few advantages in the robotics world.” Animals utilize specific gaits depending on speed due to complex muscle interaction, tendons, and bones. With that in mind, Kim discovered that the cheetah robot, powered by electric motors, displayed varying kinetics from its animal counterpart. The high-powered motors allowed the robot to move at a steady clip of 14 mph, faster than animals can naturally trot.
“We have to understand what is the governing principle that we need, and ask: Is that a constraint in biological systems, or can we realize it in an engineering domain?” Kim says. “There’s a complex process to find out useful principles overarching the differences between animals and machines. Sometimes obsessing over animal features and characteristics can hinder your progress in robotics.”
While animals remain the inspiration behind the machines look, the function poses a much more complicated inquest. Trusting human lives to a machine that can neither feel nor discern human emotion is a daunting task. The researchers at MIT continue to work toward a machine that can think decisively and save human lives in the face of danger.