Merging man and machine: The exoskeleton-powered droid that can punch through walls
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Man becomes machine
This wall-punching bot may look fearsome but it’s being designed for the best of reasons.
The person-powered droid is being built by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to save lives in disaster zones.
The Hermes robot is controlled by the person wearing the exoskeleton. The bot not only mimics the full body movements of its human controller, but also shares some of that individual’s agility and adaptability.
“Hermes is a humanoid platform that we’ve been trying to develop to deploy to disaster situation scenarios,” PhD student Joao Ramos said, adding that Hermes could be used in areas too dangerous for people.
“We’re trying to put a human’s brain inside the robot. We want to take advantage of what humans can do and the way they can learn and adapt to face new situations.”
The Hermes droid has been designed to sidestep some of the common balance problems that affect humanoid robots.
The robot seen here was only one of many that took a tumble in this year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge.
The difficulty bots still have with tasks such as climbing rubble or opening doors reflects the how hard it is for them to act like humans – even when remotely controlled.
A better bot
The Hermes bot avoids the instability that usually affects droids as it is responsibility of the human operator to keep the bot upright.
A system monitors the pressure that is being exerted on the bot’s feet. If the system detects the robot shifting its weight in a way that could result in a fall, it applies a jolt to a belt worn by the human operator.
That jolt pushes the operator in the direction the robot is beginning to fall, causing the human to change position to stay upright. In turn this stabilising movement is transmitted back to the robot, enabling it to keep its balance.
The MIT bot was able to stay upright while being hit with hammers, punching through drywall and karate-chopping boards.
Having a human calling the shots also allows the operator to show the bot how to deal with unexpected situations – for example, when Hermes got its arm stuck in a wall.
The human not only controls the bot’s arms and legs but also has buttons in the exoskeleton’s handles that allow the operator to grip with the robot’s fingers – letting the bot pick up objects such as this fake axe.
An iron grip
The buttons in the exoskeleton’s handles also allow the operator to control the force of the robot’s grip – allowing the human to choose between lightly holding an object or crushing it, as seen here.
A droid's eyeview
The operator wears goggles that provide a view through the robot’s “eyes” – seeing a feed from a camera in the bot’s head.
A robot refresher
Having a camera feed from the bot also allows the operator to carry out tasks that need require careful positioning and manipulation of objects – such as pouring this drink.
In future, researchers expect the droid will take responsibility for more of its actions.
“We’ve designed the bot to be stronger than a person, so we imagine in the future we will want to merge some level of autonomous control, along with the human’s intelligence,” said PhD student Albert Wang.
This research was funded, in part, by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.