Tag Archives: Flexible

#435628 Soft Exosuit Makes Walking and Running ...

Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have been testing a flexible, lightweight exosuit that can improve your metabolic efficiency by 4 to 10 percent while walking and running. This is very important because, according to a press release from Harvard, the suit can help you be faster and more efficient, whether you’re “walking at a leisurely pace,” or “running for your life.” Great!

Making humans better at running for their lives is something that we don’t put nearly enough research effort into, I think. The problem may not come up very often, but when it does, it’s super important (because, bears). So, sign me up for anything that we can do to make our desperate flights faster or more efficient—especially if it’s a lightweight, wearable exosuit that’s soft, flexible, and comfortable to wear.

This is the same sort of exosuit that was part of a DARPA program that we wrote about a few years ago, which was designed to make it easier for soldiers to carry heavy loads for long distances.

Photos: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The system uses two waist-mounted electrical motors connected with cables to thigh straps that run down around your butt. The motors pull on the cables at the same time that your muscles actuate, helping them out and reducing the amount of work that your muscles put in without decreasing the amount of force they exert on your legs. The entire suit (batteries included) weighs 5 kilograms (11 pounds).

In order for the cables to actuate at the right time, the suit tracks your gait with two inertial measurement units (IMUs) on the thighs and one on the waist, and then adjusts its actuation profile accordingly. It works well, too, with measurable increases in performance:

We show that a portable exosuit that assists hip extension can reduce the metabolic rate of treadmill walking at 1.5 meters per second by 9.3 percent and that of running at 2.5 meters per second by 4.0 percent compared with locomotion without the exosuit. These reduction magnitudes are comparable to the effects of taking off 7.4 and 5.7 kilograms during walking and running, respectively, and are in a range that has shown meaningful athletic performance changes.

By increasing your efficiency, you can think of the suit as being able to make you walk or run faster, or farther, or carry a heavier load, all while spending the same amount of energy (or less), which could be just enough to outrun the bear that’s chasing you. Plus, it doesn’t appear to be uncomfortable to wear, and doesn’t require the user to do anything differently, which means that (unlike most robotics things) it’s maybe actually somewhat practical for real-world use—whether you’re indoors or outdoors, or walking or running, or being chased by a bear or not.

Sadly, I have no idea when you might be able to buy one of these things. But the researchers are looking for ways to make the suit even easier to use, while also reducing the weight and making the efficiency increase more pronounced. Harvard’s Conor Walsh says they’re “excited to continue to apply it to a range of applications, including assisting those with gait impairments, industry workers at risk of injury performing physically strenuous tasks, or recreational weekend warriors.” As a weekend warrior who is not entirely sure whether he can outrun a bear, I’m excited for this.

Reducing the metabolic rate of walking and running with a versatile, portable exosuit, by Jinsoo Kim, Giuk Lee, Roman Heimgartner, Dheepak Arumukhom Revi, Nikos Karavas, Danielle Nathanson, Ignacio Galiana, Asa Eckert-Erdheim, Patrick Murphy, David Perry, Nicolas Menard, Dabin Kim Choe, Philippe Malcolm, and Conor J. Walsh from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, appears in the current issue of Science. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435591 Video Friday: This Robotic Thread Could ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Eight engineering students from ETH Zurich are working on a year-long focus project to develop a multimodal robot called Dipper, which can fly, swim, dive underwater, and manage that difficult air-water transition:

The robot uses one motor to selectively drive either a propeller or a marine screw depending on whether it’s in flight or not. We’re told that getting the robot to autonomously do the water to air transition is still a work in progress, but that within a few weeks things should be much smoother.

[ Dipper ]

Thanks Simon!

Giving a jellyfish a hug without stressing them out is exactly as hard as you think, but Harvard’s robot will make sure that all jellyfish get the emotional (and physical) support that they need.

The gripper’s six “fingers” are composed of thin, flat strips of silicone with a hollow channel inside bonded to a layer of flexible but stiffer polymer nanofibers. The fingers are attached to a rectangular, 3D-printed plastic “palm” and, when their channels are filled with water, curl in the direction of the nanofiber-coated side. Each finger exerts an extremely low amount of pressure — about 0.0455 kPA, or less than one-tenth of the pressure of a human’s eyelid on their eye. By contrast, current state-of-the-art soft marine grippers, which are used to capture delicate but more robust animals than jellyfish, exert about 1 kPA.

The gripper was successfully able to trap each jellyfish against the palm of the device, and the jellyfish were unable to break free from the fingers’ grasp until the gripper was depressurized. The jellyfish showed no signs of stress or other adverse effects after being released, and the fingers were able to open and close roughly 100 times before showing signs of wear and tear.

[ Harvard ]

MIT engineers have developed a magnetically steerable, thread-like robot that can actively glide through narrow, winding pathways, such as the labyrinthine vasculature of the brain. In the future, this robotic thread may be paired with existing endovascular technologies, enabling doctors to remotely guide the robot through a patient’s brain vessels to quickly treat blockages and lesions, such as those that occur in aneurysms and stroke.

[ MIT ]

See NASA’s next Mars rover quite literally coming together inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This behind-the-scenes look at what goes into building and preparing a rover for Mars, including extensive tests in simulated space environments, was captured from March to July 2019. The rover is expected to launch to the Red Planet in summer 2020 and touch down in February 2021.

The Mars 2020 rover doesn’t have a name yet, but you can give it one! As long as you’re not too old! Which you probably are!

[ Mars 2020 ]

I desperately wish that we could watch this next video at normal speed, not just slowed down, but it’s quite impressive anyway.

Here’s one more video from the Namiki Lab showing some high speed tracking with a pair of very enthusiastic robotic cameras:

[ Namiki Lab ]

Normally, tedious modeling of mechanics, electronics, and information science is required to understand how insects’ or robots’ moving parts coordinate smoothly to take them places. But in a new study, biomechanics researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology boiled down the sprints of cockroaches to handy principles and equations they then used to make a test robot amble about better.

[ Georgia Tech ]

More magical obstacle-dodging footage from Skydio’s still secret new drone.

We’ve been hard at work extending the capabilities of our upcoming drone, giving you ways to get the control you want without the stress of crashing. The result is you can fly in ways, and get shots, that would simply be impossible any other way. How about flying through obstacles at full speed, backwards?

[ Skydio ]

This is a cute demo with Misty:

[ Misty Robotics ]

We’ve seen pieces of hardware like this before, but always made out of hard materials—a soft version is certainly something new.

Utilizing vacuum power and soft material actuators, we have developed a soft reconfigurable surface (SRS) with multi-modal control and performance capabilities. The SRS is comprised of a square grid array of linear vacuum-powered soft pneumatic actuators (linear V-SPAs), built into plug-and-play modules which enable the arrangement, consolidation, and control of many DoF.

[ RRL ]

The EksoVest is not really a robot, but it’ll make you a cyborg! With super strength!

“This is NOT intended to give you super strength but instead give you super endurance and reduce fatigue so that you have more energy and less soreness at the end of your shift.”


[ EksoVest ]

We have created a solution for parents, grandparents, and their children who are living separated. This is an amazing tool to stay connected from a distance through the intimacy that comes through interactive play with a child. For parents who travel for work, deployed military, and families spread across the country, the Cushybot One is much more than a toy; it is the opportunity for maintaining a deep connection with your young child from a distance.


I think the concept here is great, but it’s going to be a serious challenge to successfully commercialize.

[ Indiegogo ]

What happens when you equip RVR with a parachute and send it off a cliff? Watch this episode of RVR Launchpad to find out – then go Behind the Build to see how we (eventually) accomplished this high-flying feat.

[ Sphero ]

These omnidirectional crawler robots aren’t new, but that doesn’t keep them from being fun to watch.

[ NEDO ] via [ Impress ]

We’ll finish up the week with a couple of past ICRA and IROS keynote talks—one by Gill Pratt on The Reliability Challenges of Autonomous Driving, and the other from Peter Hart, on Making Shakey.

[ IEEE RAS ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435583 Soft Self-Healing Materials for Robots ...

If there’s one thing we know about robots, it’s that they break. They break, like, literally all the time. The software breaks. The hardware breaks. The bits that you think could never, ever, ever possibly break end up breaking just when you need them not to break the most, and then you have to try to explain what happened to your advisor who’s been standing there watching your robot fail and then stay up all night fixing the thing that seriously was not supposed to break.

While most of this is just a fundamental characteristic of robots that can’t be helped, the European Commission is funding a project called SHERO (Self HEaling soft RObotics) to try and solve at least some of those physical robot breaking problems through the use of structural materials that can autonomously heal themselves over and over again.

SHERO is a three year, €3 million collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris), and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). As the name SHERO suggests, the goal of the project is to develop soft materials that can completely recover from the kinds of damage that robots are likely to suffer in day to day operations, as well as the occasional more extreme accident.

Most materials, especially soft materials, are fixable somehow, whether it’s with super glue or duct tape. But fixing things involves a human first identifying when they’re broken, and then performing a potentially skill, labor, time, and money intensive task. SHERO’s soft materials will, eventually, make this entire process autonomous, allowing robots to self-identify damage and initiate healing on their own.

Photos: SHERO Project

The damaged robot finger [top] can operate normally after healing itself.

How the self-healing material works
What these self-healing materials can do is really pretty amazing. The researchers are actually developing two different types—the first one heals itself when there’s an application of heat, either internally or externally, which gives some control over when and how the healing process starts. For example, if the robot is handling stuff that’s dirty, you’d want to get it cleaned up before healing it so that dirt doesn’t become embedded in the material. This could mean that the robot either takes itself to a heating station, or it could activate some kind of embedded heating mechanism to be more self-sufficient.

The second kind of self-healing material is autonomous, in that it will heal itself at room temperature without any additional input, and is probably more suitable for relatively minor scrapes and cracks. Here are some numbers about how well the healing works:

Autonomous self-healing polymers do not require heat. They can heal damage at room temperature. Developing soft robotic systems from autonomous self-healing polymers excludes the need of additional heating devices… The healing however takes some time. The healing efficiency after 3 days, 7 days and 14 days is respectively 62 percent, 91 percent and 97 percent.

This material was used to develop a healable soft pneumatic hand. Relevant large cuts can be healed entirely without the need of external heat stimulus. Depending on the size of the damage and even more on the location of damage, the healing takes only seconds or up to a week. Damage on locations on the actuator that are subjected to very small stresses during actuation was healed instantaneously. Larger damages, like cutting the actuator completely in half, took 7 days to heal. But even this severe damage could be healed completely without the need of any external stimulus.

Applications of self-healing robots
Both of these materials can be mixed together, and their mechanical properties can be customized so that the structure that they’re a part of can be tuned to move in different ways. The researchers also plan on introducing flexible conductive sensors into the material, which will help sense damage as well as providing position feedback for control systems. A lot of development will happen over the next few years, and for more details, we spoke with Bram Vanderborght at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

IEEE Spectrum: How easy or difficult or expensive is it to produce these materials? Will they add significant cost to robotic grippers?

Bram Vanderborght: They are definitely more expensive materials, but it’s also a matter of size of production. At the moment, we’ve made a few kilograms of the material (enough to make several demonstrators), and the price already dropped significantly from when we ordered 100 grams of the material in the first phase of the project. So probably the cost of the gripper will be higher [than a regular gripper], but you won’t need to replace the gripper as often as other grippers that need to be replaced due to wear, so it can be an advantage.

Moreover due to the method of 3D printing the material, the surface is smoother and airtight (so no post-processing is required to make it airtight). Also, the smooth surface is better to avoid contamination for food handling, for example.

In commercial or industrial applications, gradual fatigue seems to be a more common issue than more abrupt trauma like cuts. How well does the self-healing work to improve durability over long periods of time?

We did not test for gradual fatigue over very long times. But both macroscopic and microscopic damage can be healed. So hopefully it can provide an answer here as well.

Image: SHERO Project

After developing a self-healing robot gripper, the researchers plan to use similar materials to build parts that can be used as the skeleton of robots, allowing them to repair themselves on a regular basis.

How much does the self-healing capability restrict the material properties? What are the limits for softness or hardness or smoothness or other characteristics of the material?

Typically the mechanical properties of networked polymers are much better than thermoplastics. Our material is a networked polymer but in which the crosslinks are reversible. We can change quite a lot of parameters in the design of the materials. So we can develop very stiff (fracture strain at 1.24 percent) and very elastic materials (fracture strain at 450 percent). The big advantage that our material has is we can mix it to have intermediate properties. Moreover, at the interface of the materials with different mechanical properties, we have the same chemical bonds, so the interface is perfect. While other materials, they may need to glue it, which gives local stresses and a weak spot.

When the material heals itself, is it less structurally sound in that spot? Can it heal damage that happens to the same spot over and over again?

In theory we can heal it an infinite amount of times. When the wound is not perfectly aligned, of course in that spot it will become weaker. Also too high temperatures lead to irreversible bonds, and impurities lead to weak spots.

Besides grippers and skins, what other potential robotics applications would this technology be useful for?

Most of self healing materials available now are used for coatings. What we are developing are structural components, therefore the mechanical properties of the material need to be good for such applications. So maybe part of the skeleton of the robot can be developed with such materials to make it lighter, since can be designed for regular repair. And for exceptional loads, it breaks and can be repaired like our human body.

[ SHERO Project ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435579 RoMeLa’s Newest Robot Is a ...

A few years ago, we wrote about NABiRoS, a bipedal robot from Dennis Hong’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at UCLA. Unlike pretty much any other biped we’d ever seen, NABiRoS had a unique kinematic configuration that had it using its two legs to walk sideways, which offered some surprising advantages.

As it turns out, bipeds aren’t the only robots that can potentially benefit from a bit of a kinematic rethink. RoMeLa has redesigned quadrupedal robots too—rather than model them after a quadrupedal animal like a dog or a horse, RoMeLa’s ALPHRED robots use four legs arranged symmetrically around the body of the robot, allowing it to walk, run, hop, and jump, as well as manipulate and carry objects, karate chop through boards, and even roller skate on its butt. This robot can do it all.

Impressive, right? This is ALPHRED 2, and its predecessor, the original ALPHRED, was introduced at IROS 2018. Both ALPHREDs are axisymmetric about the vertical axis, meaning that they don’t have a front or a back and are perfectly happy to walk in any direction you like. Traditional quadrupeds like Spot or Laikago can also move sideways and backwards, but their leg arrangement makes them more efficient at moving in one particular direction, and also results in some curious compromises like a preference for going down stairs backwards. ANYmal is a bit more flexible in that it can reverse its knees, but it’s still got that traditional quadrupedal two-by-two configuration.

ALPHRED 2’s four symmetrical limbs can be used for a whole bunch of stuff. It can do quadrupedal walking and running, and it’s able to reach stable speeds of up to 1.5 m/s. If you want bipedal walking, it can do that NABiRoS-style, although it’s still a bit fragile at the moment. Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms. A tripedal compromise configuration, with three legs and one arm, is more stable and allows the robot to do things like push buttons, open doors, and destroy property. And thanks to passive wheels under its body, ALPHRED 2 can use its limbs to quickly and efficiently skate around:

The impressive performance of the robot comes courtesy of a custom actuator that RoMeLa designed specifically for dynamic legged locomotion. They call it BEAR, or Back-Drivable Electromechanical Actuator for Robots. These are optionally liquid-cooled motors capable of proprioceptive sensing, consisting of a DC motor, a single stage 10:1 planetary gearbox, and channels through the back of the housing that coolant can be pumped through. The actuators have a peak torque of 32 Nm, and a continuous torque of about 8 Nm with passive air cooling. With liquid cooling, the continuous torque jumps to about 21 Nm. And in the videos above, ALPHRED 2 isn’t even running the liquid cooling system, suggesting that it’s capable of much higher sustained performance.

Photo: RoMeLa

Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms.

RoMeLa has produced a bunch of very creative robots, and we appreciate that they also seem to produce a bunch of very creative demos showing why their unusual approaches are in fact (at least in some specific cases) somewhat practical. With the recent interest in highly dynamic robots that can be reliably useful in environments infested with humans, we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting tricks the next (presumably liquid-cooled) version will be able to do.

[ RoMeLa ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435423 Moving Beyond Mind-Controlled Limbs to ...

Brain-machine interface enthusiasts often gush about “closing the loop.” It’s for good reason. On the implant level, it means engineering smarter probes that only activate when they detect faulty electrical signals in brain circuits. Elon Musk’s Neuralink—among other players—are readily pursuing these bi-directional implants that both measure and zap the brain.

But to scientists laboring to restore functionality to paralyzed patients or amputees, “closing the loop” has broader connotations. Building smart mind-controlled robotic limbs isn’t enough; the next frontier is restoring sensation in offline body parts. To truly meld biology with machine, the robotic appendage has to “feel one” with the body.

This month, two studies from Science Robotics describe complementary ways forward. In one, scientists from the University of Utah paired a state-of-the-art robotic arm—the DEKA LUKE—with electrically stimulating remaining nerves above the attachment point. Using artificial zaps to mimic the skin’s natural response patterns to touch, the team dramatically increased the patient’s ability to identify objects. Without much training, he could easily discriminate between the small and large and the soft and hard while blindfolded and wearing headphones.

In another, a team based at the National University of Singapore took inspiration from our largest organ, the skin. Mimicking the neural architecture of biological skin, the engineered “electronic skin” not only senses temperature, pressure, and humidity, but continues to function even when scraped or otherwise damaged. Thanks to artificial nerves that transmit signals far faster than our biological ones, the flexible e-skin shoots electrical data 1,000 times quicker than human nerves.

Together, the studies marry neuroscience and robotics. Representing the latest push towards closing the loop, they show that integrating biological sensibilities with robotic efficiency isn’t impossible (super-human touch, anyone?). But more immediately—and more importantly—they’re beacons of hope for patients who hope to regain their sense of touch.

For one of the participants, a late middle-aged man with speckled white hair who lost his forearm 13 years ago, superpowers, cyborgs, or razzle-dazzle brain implants are the last thing on his mind. After a barrage of emotionally-neutral scientific tests, he grasped his wife’s hand and felt her warmth for the first time in over a decade. His face lit up in a blinding smile.

That’s what scientists are working towards.

Biomimetic Feedback
The human skin is a marvelous thing. Not only does it rapidly detect a multitude of sensations—pressure, temperature, itch, pain, humidity—its wiring “binds” disparate signals together into a sensory fingerprint that helps the brain identify what it’s feeling at any moment. Thanks to over 45 miles of nerves that connect the skin, muscles, and brain, you can pick up a half-full coffee cup, knowing that it’s hot and sloshing, while staring at your computer screen. Unfortunately, this complexity is also why restoring sensation is so hard.

The sensory electrode array implanted in the participant’s arm. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019)..
However, complex neural patterns can also be a source of inspiration. Previous cyborg arms are often paired with so-called “standard” sensory algorithms to induce a basic sense of touch in the missing limb. Here, electrodes zap residual nerves with intensities proportional to the contact force: the harder the grip, the stronger the electrical feedback. Although seemingly logical, that’s not how our skin works. Every time the skin touches or leaves an object, its nerves shoot strong bursts of activity to the brain; while in full contact, the signal is much lower. The resulting electrical strength curve resembles a “U.”

The LUKE hand. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019).
The team decided to directly compare standard algorithms with one that better mimics the skin’s natural response. They fitted a volunteer with a robotic LUKE arm and implanted an array of electrodes into his forearm—right above the amputation—to stimulate the remaining nerves. When the team activated different combinations of electrodes, the man reported sensations of vibration, pressure, tapping, or a sort of “tightening” in his missing hand. Some combinations of zaps also made him feel as if he were moving the robotic arm’s joints.

In all, the team was able to carefully map nearly 120 sensations to different locations on the phantom hand, which they then overlapped with contact sensors embedded in the LUKE arm. For example, when the patient touched something with his robotic index finger, the relevant electrodes sent signals that made him feel as if he were brushing something with his own missing index fingertip.

Standard sensory feedback already helped: even with simple electrical stimulation, the man could tell apart size (golf versus lacrosse ball) and texture (foam versus plastic) while blindfolded and wearing noise-canceling headphones. But when the team implemented two types of neuromimetic feedback—electrical zaps that resembled the skin’s natural response—his performance dramatically improved. He was able to identify objects much faster and more accurately under their guidance. Outside the lab, he also found it easier to cook, feed, and dress himself. He could even text on his phone and complete routine chores that were previously too difficult, such as stuffing an insert into a pillowcase, hammering a nail, or eating hard-to-grab foods like eggs and grapes.

The study shows that the brain more readily accepts biologically-inspired electrical patterns, making it a relatively easy—but enormously powerful—upgrade that seamlessly integrates the robotic arms with the host. “The functional and emotional benefits…are likely to be further enhanced with long-term use, and efforts are underway to develop a portable take-home system,” the team said.

E-Skin Revolution: Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES)
Flexible electronic skins also aren’t new, but the second team presented an upgrade in both speed and durability while retaining multiplexed sensory capabilities.

Starting from a combination of rubber, plastic, and silicon, the team embedded over 200 sensors onto the e-skin, each capable of discerning contact, pressure, temperature, and humidity. They then looked to the skin’s nervous system for inspiration. Our skin is embedded with a dense array of nerve endings that individually transmit different types of sensations, which are integrated inside hubs called ganglia. Compared to having every single nerve ending directly ping data to the brain, this “gather, process, and transmit” architecture rapidly speeds things up.

The team tapped into this biological architecture. Rather than pairing each sensor with a dedicated receiver, ACES sends all sensory data to a single receiver—an artificial ganglion. This setup lets the e-skin’s wiring work as a whole system, as opposed to individual electrodes. Every sensor transmits its data using a characteristic pulse, which allows it to be uniquely identified by the receiver.

The gains were immediate. First was speed. Normally, sensory data from multiple individual electrodes need to be periodically combined into a map of pressure points. Here, data from thousands of distributed sensors can independently go to a single receiver for further processing, massively increasing efficiency—the new e-skin’s transmission rate is roughly 1,000 times faster than that of human skin.

Second was redundancy. Because data from individual sensors are aggregated, the system still functioned even when any individual receptors are damaged, making it far more resilient than previous attempts. Finally, the setup could easily scale up. Although the team only tested the idea with 240 sensors, theoretically the system should work with up to 10,000.

The team is now exploring ways to combine their invention with other material layers to make it water-resistant and self-repairable. As you might’ve guessed, an immediate application is to give robots something similar to complex touch. A sensory upgrade not only lets robots more easily manipulate tools, doorknobs, and other objects in hectic real-world environments, it could also make it easier for machines to work collaboratively with humans in the future (hey Wall-E, care to pass the salt?).

Dexterous robots aside, the team also envisions engineering better prosthetics. When coated onto cyborg limbs, for example, ACES may give them a better sense of touch that begins to rival the human skin—or perhaps even exceed it.

Regardless, efforts that adapt the functionality of the human nervous system to machines are finally paying off, and more are sure to come. Neuromimetic ideas may very well be the link that finally closes the loop.

Image Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots