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Animal Robots 114

hamlet2600 writes "The New York Time is running an article all about how animal like robots [Soul Sucking registration required] are beginning to become more imporant in furthering research. For years reseachers have been trying to make humanoid robots, Honda's ASIMO, MIT's M2 are some notable ones. It seems that more and more researchers are turning to the animal kingdom for "simpler" means of locomotion."
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Animal Robots

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:00AM (#10264926)
    Robotic penguin anyone?
  • I await the day when they add the ability for the robot dogs to sniff each other's power supply when they meet.
  • For years reseachers have been trying to make humanoid robots, Honda's ASIMO, MIT's M2 are some notable ones.

    Let's not forget the AWESOM-O 4000

  • by YetAnotherName ( 168064 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:03AM (#10264945) Homepage
    My daughter and I came to the same conclusion as the researchers in this article: after struggling to make a biped robot with LEGO Mindstorms [] robotics for quite some time, we found that a six-legged ant was much simpler.
  • toys will be awesome (Score:1, Interesting)

    by abaybas ( 630833 )
    When I think about it, my kids will most probably be playing with animated robotic Barbies, GIJoes, and T-Rex's. Man am I jealous..
  • by Gargon the Rat ( 414111 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:04AM (#10264951)
    Every neuroscience conference I go to has at least one or two animal like robots.
  • Interesting (Score:3, Funny)

    by Marco_polo ( 160898 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:05AM (#10264959) Homepage
    Would the robot pets 'download' onto your carpet when you aren't home?

  • by rotorhead ( 528800 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:07AM (#10264976)
    Snake robots have been around for some time
  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:09AM (#10264995) Homepage
    problem is that they have YET to design a sensor like our inner-ear to detect balance and orientation.

    even animals have this "sensor" and the subprocessor systems to not tip over when a leg is lifted before the main processor can detect the change and ask for a balance correction.

    too many projects are looking at monolithic processing, which can not handle a complex thing like walking and balance like an organism can.

    Think about this, an animal like a dog or housecat is certianly not designed to use stairs, yet they adapt quite easily and quickly to handle them even though they were designed for human motion. A dog's rear leg has extremely limited motion compared to a human leg, yet they adapt to running up a stairwell quite easily, and some dogs can adapt to the point that they can climb a ladder!

    MIT had a great program going about 15 years ago about seperating all robotic motion out to seperate processors and allow the main processor to issue interrupts to cause different motion, but I haven't heard from anyone in that program for a really long time. Anyone know if the program is still going?
    • by Omega697 ( 586982 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:22AM (#10265102)
      problem is that they have YET to design a sensor like our inner-ear to detect balance and orientation. It's called an accelerometer, and not only have they designed it, but they have it in the Sony AIBOs that we use for RoboCup soccer. I'm not saying they're perfect, or even that we know how to use the information from them very effectively. But they do exist.
      • I suppose the problem is simulating the entire body with a model in the computer. Animals know how their bodies work very well because when they were young they learned. We have quite a good model of ourselves in our heads so that we can move our foot without looking at it. This model allows us to just know where to put our foot if we are unladen or carrying something since we have done both and know how to do it.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:36AM (#10265232) Homepage
        no, it is not.

        an acelerometer can not detect rotation like the inner ear can nor can it reliably and with extreme precision detect acceleration in 3 axis.

        your ear can detect acceleration in very VERY minute detail, along with anlge of tilt as well as rotation.

        Granted prolonged rotation confuses the sensor.

        I've messed with accelerometers, they are way too low resolution and limited. and the highest resolution and sensitivity units are so expensive that amost all robotics projects do not use them.

        The inner ear is more than an accelerometer. plus, it's only one sensor in a group of sensors that animals and humans use for balance.
        • Experiment with trying to walk in a straight line while looking straight up...
        • The inner ear may be more sensitive than accelerometers but it's only a matter of time before that is not true. Perhaps there is however something to what you say. A sphere half (or less) filled with mercury (or another conductive liquid) with many contacts around its inside, pairs of which are scanned rapidly, could be a very effective sensor for detecting rotation.
        • I used a $3k 6-axis accelerometer on a robotics project this summer that works just dandy. And "expensive" is a relative term.
        • 2 accelerometers can be used to detect and measure the rate of rotation (error is pretty bad at this point, but its possible)

          gyro's do a very good job at measuring rotation. they are not that expensive either

          you can get free (sample) and rather good mems accelerometers from A/D. gyros are about $60 for the ones i've used.

          also can use magnetometers or full IMU for very nice closed-box intertial sensing. those cost quite a bit.
    • problem is that they have YET to design a sensor like our inner-ear to detect balance and orientation.

      Wrong. Buy a small INS here. [] There are standard units that contain three accelerometers and three rate gyros (one for each axis), which is what you need. They're getting smaller; 1 cubic inch units with all six sensors are available, and a single-chip version has been prototyped.

      Most serious robotics projects today have one of these. They're not good enough for navigation by themselves, but they c

  • by jstave ( 734089 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:13AM (#10265029)
    All they have to do is combine these concepts with the Robot that eats flies [] and we'll have invented the toad!

    Just think, the article's mention of that Disney robot dinosaur:

    ...nine-foot dinosaur robot named Lucky that sometimes roams the Disney theme parks.
    ...could have the phrase "...eating the occasional visitor." added to it.
  • When I first read the article description I thought it said a NY Times article "all about how animalS like robots," and I thought, well that's BS - my friends have a roomba and their dog HATES and FEARS that thing. Whenever it goes into action it's total stress (and barking) time.
    • I've always been curious about the interaction, or lack of interaction, betwean cats dogs and a new aibo. I've never seen mention of it by an owners though, suggesting that it might fall more into the lack of interaction catagory than the hilarious section.
      • The problem with getting an animal to react with something mechanical is that, despite dogs generally being quite 'stupid', they can tell if something's alive or not.

        It really sucks, but to even remotely make an aibo 'real' to a dog, you'd have to give it fur, a distinctive smell, an arsehole (all a dog wants to do is sniff it, honest), and some wierd high-pithced ultra sonic sounds.........

        until we learn how dogs communicate fully, we'll never get a dog to communicate with a robot properly...
  • Efficiency (Score:5, Informative)

    by devilsadvoc8 ( 548238 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:16AM (#10265058)
    Bipedal movement is more efficient than quadrapeds. It takes less energy to move the same mass at the same speed using two legs vs four. The problem lies in the inherent instability of bipedal movement. Thankfully, evolution has blessed us with the means to account for this instability. Roboteers don't have the benefit of millions of years and thus an easier solution would be to revert to the less efficient mode of movement involving more than two legs.
  • Replicators [].
    They're rather cute, and "fun".
    • That's wonderful... until their creator gets mad and they begin eating stuff to replicate... then, while waging a war with us for supremacy, they eventually evolve into humanoid lifeforms.
      This will force us to collapse the Sun into a black hole, from which they will undoubtably escape and return to attempt to wreak havoc on our new planet until an Air Force colonel accquires the knowledge of an ancient intergalactic race (who have since ascended to a energy state of being), and uses it to create a weapon c
  • by bigattichouse ( 527527 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:26AM (#10265126) Homepage
    ahh, to own a superfast "rat-thing" (not to spoil the plot)
    • I don't want to ruin the plot either, but since you've already led us in that direction, the rat thing is not a robot. I will say no more, though I fear I have already ruined the surprise. Of course, it's hard to find someone who hasn't read snow crash on slashdot...
  • What people don't realize is that there has been foundation research for almost 20 years now on this subject. Who can forget the Pioneering research put into the topic of 1-foot tall talking bears?

    Teddy Ruxpin [] has for years been at the forefront of this field, dealing with human-talking-bear interaction.
  • All you people talking about dogs rights and "this will be the end of the canine species" are crazy. It's not like they are going to mutate and take over the world or anything. I think everyone should just settle down and relax...the worst thing that could happen is that the fleas won't have much to eat and will resort to people more often.
  • ... for beastiality.

    A huge sector of the internet could be affected!
  • Mind over Matter (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Evil Schmoo ( 700378 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @09:45AM (#10265371) Homepage
    Well, the basic idea's been around in compsci and robsci for decades -- simple machines. The article suggests that researchers are trying to imitate certain species of existing animals, and while that is no doubt true, the point is much more basic. Animals adapt to their environs in the long run (evolution) and the short run (whatever short-term evolution is called). Copying evolutionary development (ie, the long run adaptation) is really rather pointless, unless you want a robot to perform exactly as a lobster does under the sea.

    If, on the other hand, you wish to use some of the lobster's physical and electromechanical techniques to create a robot that can respond to its environment independently of its controller, then you may have something worthwhile. The dramatic success of the Mars rovers, AFAIK, is due in large part to their adaptable mobility, the main impulse paths for which were copied from insects (ants?).

    So, it seems to me that article misses the point -- it's not the physical structures of animals, but the neural processes that guide them, that researchers are so giddy about copying.

    Peace, Love, and Soul.
  • ...oops. I thought it was about 'anime robots'.
  • The idea of looking to design robotics based around a "simpler" life form than a human isn't really new. B.E.A.M robotics [] has been around for a number of years, a field of robotics generally finding it's inspiration in bugs and other simple creatures. Hey, if we can understand an emulate simpler organisms through machines, we're a lot closer to tackling the "higher" organisms such as ourselves.
  • M2 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Xeo2 ( 301694 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @10:28AM (#10265903) Homepage Journal
    I actually spent this last summer working on M2, so I can tell you a little about how it works. M2 was designed to make use of two nifty ideas, the first being Series-Elastic Actuators (photo [])and the other being Virtual Model Control link to pdf journal article []).

    The series elastic actuators are meant to simulate the interaction of a human muscle-tendon-bone system, and to allow for the design of a low-impedance system. M2 is designed to actually mimic the inherent low-impedence (low-stiffness) mechanical system that people represent. People are really awful at position based/high-impedance control, which is what most traditional robots use. This is useful for manufacturing, when you want the robot arm to always put the bolts in the same place, but leads to stereotypical "robot" movement (like the guy spastically jerking around on the dance floor). People are pretty good at force control though (there are all sorts of biological reasons for this). So M2 was built to be low-impedance like a person by using these S-A Actuators.

    Virtual Model Control is supposed to allow more a more intuitive control of a robot by simulating it as a mechanical system. VMC lets you basically define springs and dampers at different points which are then simulated by the actuators. So to keep M2 standing, you might make a granny-walker out of springs, and to make it walk you could "attach" a spring to its chest pulling it forward. VMC has been implemented in simulation (where it works great), but it's not quite ready in real life.

    The really cool thing about M2 is its potential. It already moves much more fluidly and naturally than any other robot out there, and its not nearly done yet. Once its working properly, it'll be able to walk essentially blindly (becuase its low impedance) like a person, rather than needing to know exactly where to place each foot (*cough*ASIMO*cough*) to keep from shattering itself.

    If anyone has any other questions about how M2 actually works, I'd be happy to answer them.

  • Here [] is a no registration link to the article. This link was generated by New York Times Link Generator [].
  • This [] seems like a cool, relatively cheap kit to build your own robo-dog.
  • If you didn't already know... Username: FreeNYT Password: FreeNYT
  • "Two legs bad. Four legs good!"

  • The Ambulatory Robotics Lab at McGill develops several robots, including a series based on cockroaches. They work really well... I'm biased, my girlfriend is doing her masters about one (aqua).

    I think they have been slashdotted once already... They've got video of the robots online.

    If interested, try: []

    IMHO, these are damned cool!

  • ... and willl he have to live in a robot zoo?


  • Yay! I always knew [url= ]Helix[/url] was a well-designed robot.

    He's always been my favorite (fictional) quaraped robot. :-)

  • we could teach it to sing happy birthday and play guitar and name it chuck e. cheese
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday September 16, 2004 @12:53PM (#10267746) Homepage
    Since the MIT Leg Lab tanked, there hasn't been that much interesting work in the US. Insect-level locomotion has been done many times. With six legs, almost any control approach will work. The same goes for swimming robots. True balancing machines are harder. But they've been done.

    Raibert did some great work in the Leg Lab's early days. Raibert's big insight was that balance is more important than gait, and he did work with one-legged machines with springy actuators to force the issue. In his day, the Leg Lab had one, two, and four-legged running machines. But he left MIT to do a startup [], which seems to have ended his dynamics work. BDI does mostly kinematic models.

    The next professor to head the Leg Lab was Gill Pratt, who was more of an actuator guy. He didn't accomplish too much, and is now at some lesser school. Under Pratt, the Leg Lab backed down from running machines to walking machines.

    There was somebody after Pratt, but apparently the Leg Lab is now defunct. It's sad. They made so much progress under Raibert.

    It's possible to go beyond walking and running on the flat. Legs are really for traction control. All the MIT work assumes that the "feet" don't slip. That doesn't work on real hills or slippery surfaces.

    There's two phases to dealing with slip. First, you need to limit joint torques to below where the feet start to slip. Once you do this, you can climb some hills. (Video, 8MB .mov file). [] That work is ten years old, and still, nobody else seems to be handling leg slip at all.

    The next step is to use the three joints of a leg [] to adjust the vector at which the normal force is applied to keep the ground contact inside the friction cone. Then you can climb more serious hills. Once you get this figured out, much of how humans move when dealing with terrain becomes clear. Leaning forward and bending the knees more when going uphill is all about slip control. Think about it.

    Working on this diverted me off into physics engines, because everything that was available ten years ago sucked. So I did a physics engine that worked [], which turned into a business. There are still very few physics engines good enough for legged locomotion work. Most physics engines, especially the Baraff-type impulse/constraint ones, don't do friction well. Since legged locomotion is all about managing foot-ground friction, you need a simulator that gets friction right. (Hint: if a simulator can't do a driving game without special-casing the wheel/ground contact, it won't work for legged work.)

    All this is patented [], of course.

  • Robo-Puppy mistreatment alert!!!
    Robo-Puppy mistreatment alert!!!
  • The funny thing about insect locomotion that nobody noticed until we started making six leged robots is that they fall down a lot. Bugs trip and fall all the time when walking.

    Of course this is not a problem for a bug, because their exoskeletons are so strong for their weight and because they mostly have a big skid plate for an abdomen.

    You have a half ton, three megabuck robot though, falling down becomes an issue.

    Besides, as we knw from Discovery Channel, bugs switch from 6 to 4 legs when they want to

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