Press Release by Nicole Casal Moore
University of Michigan
May 28, 2010
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—A robot named MABEL with a human-like gait can walk over
rough terrain in University of Michigan electrical engineering professor
Jessy Grizzle's lab.
Hae-Won Park, Jessy Grizzle,
Grizzle and his students Hae-Won Park and Koushil Sreenath posted a
YouTube video of MABEL's first steps over wooden planks, and within five
days it was viewed more than 84,000 times.
(Spoiler alert!) It doesn't have a happy ending. MABEL breaks a leg and
doubles over, but not before she clears planks stacked to 2.5 inches high.
"In the video, MABEL falls, but does not trip," Grizzle said. "Each shin
has a built-in mechanical fuse that gives way when the load on the leg
exceeds a threshold. This is done to avoid damage to the bearings in the
hips. In the experiment, the fuse in MABEL's right shin gave way. The
resulting fall is quite spectacular, but does not permanently damage the
robot. It takes about an hour to reassemble the leg."
It was the researchers' intent to test MABEL's limits. Grizzle was
surprised that she was able to perform as well as she did. What a robot can
step over usually depends on what it can see, but MABEL is blind. She has no
camera. The engineers had merely programmed her legs to swing higher to step
over or onto obstacles. They hadn't programmed her specifically to navigate
That's what they'll do in future, more scientific experiments. The
researchers are developing feedback control algorithms to give bipedal
robots a strong sense of balance. This early experiment was, for MABEL, the
equivalent of walking confidently down a forest trail while talking to a
friend—and not looking down to watch your steps.
"Humans rely on a keen sense of balance to pull this off," Grizzle said.
"The challenge for engineers is to design this ability into robots."
Grizzle believes MABEL will eventually be able to gracefully step from a
stair-height of about 7.5 inches.
So what's the point of all this? Grizzle says more than 70 percent of the
Earth's land surface isn't navigable by wheeled or tracked vehicles. Bipedal
robots could be capable of traveling in these places.
"If robots are going to perform rescue operations, they're not going to
be walking on a nice linoleum floor," Grizzle said. "Even if they're in a
building, it's going to be littered with things that have fallen. They have
to be able to walk on an uneven surface without tripping."
Grizzle's ultimate goal for MABEL is to make her run. It's a feat he
almost achieved with her predecessor, RABBIT, but RABBIT's heavy legs
carried motors and no springs. MABEL's motors are in her torso, which leaves
her legs light and agile. Her legs also have springs that act like tendons,
storing and releasing energy.
"Running would really be one of the highest demonstrations of agile
behavior in a machine. It takes such delicate feedback control," Grizzle
said. "RABBIT failed to run in steady state. We got six really beautiful
steps, but we never got seven or eight."
He hopes to see MABEL jog by winter.
Grizzle will present this research at MIT's Dynamic Walking 2010
conference on July 8 in Boston.
Grizzle is the Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering in
the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Sreenath is a
doctoral student in the same department. Park is a doctoral student in the
Department of Mechanical Engineering. The robot was designed in
collaboration with professor Jonathan Hurst of Oregon State University. This
research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Posted: May 28, 2010 by
EECS/ECE Communications Coordinator
firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-936-2965
Related Topics: Grizzle, Jessy Robotics and Computer Vision