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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Robot of the Day: MABEL, the Two-Legged Running Robot

MABEL (not an acronym) is the name of a bipedal "humanoid" robot created by researchers at University of Michigan. It just got its fame recently because it could run in a human-like gait at speeds up to 3.06 meters/second. That is 6.8 miles per hour. That is the world record for a bipedal robot with knees.

MABEL was originally built in collaboration with Jonathan Hurst, then a doctor student at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Then researchers at U-M spent years improving the feed-back system in MABEL's training. MABEL was intentionally built to look like a human, with a heavier torso and light flexible legs. When it is running, MABEL is in the air for 40 percent of each stride, which is almost like a real runner. The robot can self balance in real time with a closed-loop control, and switch gaits as commanded autonomously. It can even transition from completely flat surface to uneven grounds. The video below shows MABEL running.

The researchers envision that two-legged robots can travel over rough terrains and function better in places built for humans. They can be used to enable wheelchair-bound people to walk again or to be used for robot rescuers that can step over small obstacles. Biped robots certainly have the advantage over wheeled robots when it comes to bumpy surface or stairs, however one important factor is that biped robots look more human-like compared to say a three-legged or 6-legged robot. The truth is that many four-legged animals run much faster than us two-legged human, and multiple-legged insects handle uneven surface much better than two legged ones. But would you rather have a two-legged humanoid robot serving you a drink or an eight-legged spider-looking one? Actually even the same MABEL robot walking backward looks more like a bird and seems weird (see video below).

I could envision multiple-legged robots to be very useful in space colonization. Most likely the surface terrain at another planet would not be flat, and the multiple-legged robots could easily transport goods for human and explore the planet surface more efficiently.

Back to the MABEL robot. It's hard to describe the feeling when I watched the robot running with large strides. There's certainly some uncanny valley effects there, but there's something beautiful about the strides, because they looked natural. Now we just have to put a soccer ball in front of it and then teach it to dribble and shoot...

To find out more about the MABEL robot, visit the researcher's project page here.

Video of the Day:

An interesting Logitech commercial showing a biped humanoid blending in the human environment. Enjoy!