Emerging Tech

Greater body awareness may make this robot an ace at helping with everyday tasks

Having a robot sidekick capable of helping us whenever we need it is something that’s been promised since the earliest days of science fiction. It’s also something that’s been frustratingly absent for the most part — although it may finally be inching closer to reality. A new project from Swiss researchers involves a bipedal robot named COMAN (Compliant Humanoid). The goal of the project is to develop a robot with more human-like walking capabilities by giving COMAN an understanding of its own body, which is achieved through the use of some smart algorithms and more flexible joints. The results are a robot that can navigate a range of different terrains, and even stop itself from tripping up by knowing where to place its feet to counteract the force of a push.

These skills are aimed at creating a robot that can not only carry out solo tasks like pushing wheelbarrows or (at long last!) bringing us our dinner on a tray, but also work alongside humans in tasks that involve two-person cooperation, such as carrying a table.

“Our interest in evaluating the implication of the coupling on the walking gaits can be associated to two main reasons,” Jessica Lanini, a researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “On one hand, we would like to better understand human motor control — trying to find out how and why the haptic feedback through an object determines walking gait adaptation and even gait synchronization phenomena. We found out that in more than 70 percent of cases, humans tend to synchronize their walking gaits reproducing quadrupedal like gaits — like pace and trot. We believe that such a study can be useful in the field of physical human-robot interaction.”

At present, the project is still very much a work in progress. The aim is to develop a smooth walking motion, although right now the results still look a bit jerky compared to the efforts of other robot initiatives like those carried out by Boston Dynamics. However, the goal of developing robots that can work alongside humans, rather than replacing them, is definitely interesting.

“Once we have understood the natural ability of humans to adapt and synchronize to their partner while carrying a rigid object, we are focusing on how to identify specific commands requested by the human operator through the haptic interaction,” Lanini said. “In particular, the robot partner should be able to understand when the human operator wants to take an object, start walking, accelerate, stop walking, turning, etc. In other words, we would like to make the robot smarter during the collaboration.”

For more on the research project, check out the associated paper that was recently published in the journal PLOS-One.

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