July 10, 2012
One Small Step For Robots, One Large Step For Mankind
Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
A group of engineers at the University of Arizona worked to develop a set of robotic legs that most closely mimic the gait of humans. Researchers studied, then replicated a simple nervous system that controls the hips and directs the legs to take steps on its own.
The intended use for a robot that walks ranges from commercial to personal. "It is clear that in the future robots will be used in homes to do household chores, assist the disabled and elderly in living independently, and just be part of the family- from trivial things like playing board games with the kids to keeping a home organized and clean," Dr. M. Anthony Lewis, a student in the program at the University of Arizona, tells redOrbit.
Advances in robotics could mean science fiction dreams come true. "I spend $400 a month for a housekeeper to clean my home once a week. In between cleanings it is a mess," Dr. Lewis says. "I would pay $400 to lease a robot that would keep my home orderly."
A full-time robot has more advantages, according to Dr. Lewis, than an orderly house. "It would give me more time to spend with my kids," he says. "What that means is that the robot itself could be relatively expensive, the price of a low-end luxury car, but if it provides value, people would buy it."
But why do we need to replicate human motions such as walking, instead of giving a robot a wheel or tread base? Replication of nature, or biomemetics, is what's happening. "The reason is that we want robot legs to integrate with legless humans therefore to have the physics, mobility and agility of human legs," says Dr. James Canton of the Institute for Global Futures. "Nature is the best model for what works -- why not imitate it."
The future of robotics, where robots come out of the research lab and into everyday life, may be here sooner than we expect. It may not be strictly machinery, either. "Of course the far future of robotics, which is coming is biomechanics," says Dr. Canton. "This is the blending of synthetic biology and engineering to use synthetic cells or make biological organisms that are bio-robotic though not fully mechanical anymore."
Developments in robotics that brings things a step closer to household use creates demand, and that could benefit the economy. "U.S. manufacturing is going to recover due to rising prices of labor in Asia," Dr. Lewis says. "We will compete by building robotic assistance that can help workers do their jobs with greater productivity."
Introduced into the workforce, these robots will have unique skill sets. "There are or there will be certain specialized jobs where tool-augmented humans, those with robotic devices are preferred or even required. These will be in space, construction, deep science research and other jobs," Dr. Canton says. "The field of human performance enhancement HPE applied to robotics, or robotic performance enhancement RPE, will focus on this in the future."
Robotics, like any other industry, develops in baby steps. There have been many robots that walk like humans, but advancement is still required. "There are hundreds of robots, some getting pretty good that can walk very well and have little biological inspiration except for their basic form," Dr. Lewis says. He reveals an issue that's held the robotics industry back from more mainstream applications. "The dirty secret that the press does not know is that these robots use HUGE amounts of power to move. They cannot be autonomous more than a short period of time."
This is where biomemetics comes in, robots that replicate humans have the advantage. "Humans get by using just a trickle of power," Dr. Lewis says. "And it is not because our muscles are more efficient. Human muscles are actually pretty *inefficient* translating only 1/4 to 1/3 of the power they use into useful energy. Biology is doing something else that makes them 10 to 100 times more efficient than the robots built using traditional engineering methods."
While researchers and engineers may have reached a turning point where advances come more rapidly, it's come from many years of development. "We have built successively more biologically accurate models, and I think this is the first time a group has gotten it right," says Dr. Lewis, who has been working on the problem for more than 10 years. "To the best of our knowledge, this is the fist system to combine accurate biomechanics, a nervous system and realistic sensory feedback - all the elements of a biological system, and make the robot walk."
While there are practical reasons for robots needing to walk, it is possible that robots with their new set of legs are results of the biggest traits of mankind, the God complex. "They will all imitate humans, their creators who will desire the immortality of creating their future children in their image," says Dr. Canton. "The God-Thing."