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Soft robots are getting more and more popular for some very good reasons. Their relative simplicity is one. Their relative low cost is another. And for their simplicity and low cost, they’re generally able to perform very impressively, leveraging the unique features inherent to their design and construction to move themselves and interact with their environment. The other significant reason why soft robots are so appealing is that they’re durable. Without the constraints of rigid parts, they can withstand the sort of abuse that would make any roboticist cringe.
In the current issue of Science Robotics, a group of researchers from Tsinghua University in China and University of California, Berkeley, present a new kind of soft robot that’s both higher performance and much more robust than just about anything we’ve seen before. The deceptively simple robot looks like a bent strip of paper, but it’s able to move at 20 body lengths per second and survive being stomped on by a human wearing tennis shoes. Take that, cockroaches.
This prototype robot measures just 3 centimeters by 1.5 cm. It takes a scanning electron microscope to actually see what the robot is made of—a thermoplastic layer is sandwiched by palladium-gold electrodes, bonded with adhesive silicone to a structural plastic at the bottom. When an AC voltage (as low as 8 volts but typically about 60 volts) is run through the electrodes, the thermoplastic extends and contracts, causing the robot’s back to flex and the little “foot” to shuffle. A complete step cycle takes just 50 milliseconds, yielding a 200 hertz gait. And technically, the robot “runs,” since it does have a brief aerial phase.
Image: Science Robotics
Photos from a high-speed camera show the robot’s gait (A to D) as it contracts and expands its body.
To put the robot’s top speed of 20 body lengths per second in perspective, have a look at this nifty chart, which shows where other animals relative running speeds of some animals and robots versus body mass:
Image: Science Robotics
This chart shows the relative running speeds of some mammals (purple area), arthropods (orange area), and soft robots (blue area) versus body mass. For both mammals and arthropods, relative speeds show a strong negative scaling law with respect to the body mass: speeds increase as body masses decrease. However, for soft robots, the relationship appears to be the opposite: speeds decrease as the body mass decrease. For the little soft robots created by the researchers from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley (red stars), the scaling law is similar to that of living animals: Higher speed was attained as the body mass decreased.
If you were wondering, like we were, just what that number 39 is on that chart (top left corner), it’s a species of tiny mite that was discovered underneath a rock in California in 1916. The mite is just under 1 mm in size, but it can run at 0.8 kilometer per hour, which is 322 body lengths per second, making it by far (like, by a factor of two at least) the fastest land animal on Earth relative to size. If a human was to run that fast relative to our size, we’d be traveling at a little bit over 2,000 kilometers per hour. It’s not a coincidence that pretty much everything in the upper left of the chart is an insect—speed scales favorably with decreasing mass, since actuators have a proportionally larger effect.
Other notable robots on the chart with impressive speed to mass ratios are number 27, which is this magnetically driven quadruped robot from UMD, and number 86, UC Berkeley’s X2-VelociRoACH.
Anyway, back to this robot. Some other cool things about it:
You can step on it, squishing it flat with a load about 1 million times its own body weight, and it’ll keep on crawling, albeit only half as fast.
Even climbing a slope of 15 degrees, it can still manage to move at 1 body length per second.
It carries peanuts! With a payload of six times its own weight, it moves a sixth as fast, but still, it’s not like you need your peanuts delivered all that quickly anyway, do you?
Image: Science Robotics
The researchers also put together a prototype with two legs instead of one, which was able to demonstrate a potentially faster galloping gait by spending more time in the air. They suggest that robots like these could be used for “environmental exploration, structural inspection, information reconnaissance, and disaster relief,” which are the sorts of things that you suggest that your robot could be used for when you really have no idea what it could be used for. But this work is certainly impressive, with speed and robustness that are largely unmatched by other soft robots. An untethered version seems possible due to the relatively low voltages required to drive the robot, and if they can put some peanut-sized sensors on there as well, practical applications might actually be forthcoming sometime soon.
“Insect-scale Fast Moving and Ultrarobust Soft Robot,” by Yichuan Wu, Justin K. Yim, Jiaming Liang, Zhichun Shao, Mingjing Qi, Junwen Zhong, Zihao Luo, Xiaojun Yan, Min Zhang, Xiaohao Wang, Ronald S. Fearing, Robert J. Full, and Liwei Lin from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley, is published in Science Robotics. Continue reading
Quadrupedal robots are making significant advances lately, and just in the past few months we’ve seen Boston Dynamics’ Spot hauling a truck, IIT’s HyQReal pulling a plane, MIT’s MiniCheetah doing backflips, Unitree Robotics’ Laikago towing a van, and Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 exploring a mine. Robot makers are betting that their four-legged machines will prove useful in a variety of applications in construction, security, delivery, and even at home.
ANYbotics has been working on such applications for years, testing out their ANYmal robot in places where humans typically don’t want to go (like offshore platforms) as well as places where humans really don’t want to go (like sewers), and they have a better idea than most companies what can make quadruped robots successful.
This week, ANYbotics is announcing a completely new quadruped platform, ANYmal C, a major upgrade from the really quite research-y ANYmal B. The new quadruped has been optimized for ruggedness and reliability in industrial environments, with a streamlined body painted a color that lets you know it means business.
ANYmal C’s physical specs are pretty impressive for a production quadruped. It can move at 1 meter per second, manage 20-degree slopes and 45-degree stairs, cross 25-centimeter gaps, and squeeze through passages just 60 centimeters wide. It’s packed with cameras and 3D sensors, including a lidar for 3D mapping and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). All these sensors (along with the vast volume of gait research that’s been done with ANYmal) make this one of the most reliably autonomous quadrupeds out there, with real-time motion planning and obstacle avoidance.
ANYmal can autonomously attach itself to a cone-shaped docking station to recharge.
ANYmal C is also one of the ruggedest legged robots in existence. The 50-kilogram robot is IP67 rated, meaning that it’s completely impervious to dust and can withstand being submerged in a meter of water for an hour. If it’s submerged for longer than that, you’re absolutely doing something wrong. The robot will run for over 2 hours on battery power, and if that’s not enough endurance, don’t worry, because ANYmal can autonomously impale itself on a weird cone-shaped docking station to recharge.
ANYmal C’s sensor payload includes cameras and a lidar for 3D mapping and SLAM.
As far as what ANYmal C is designed to actually do, it’s mostly remote inspection tasks where you need to move around through a relatively complex environment, but where for whatever reason you’d be better off not sending a human. ANYmal C has a sensor payload that gives it lots of visual options, like thermal imaging, and with the ability to handle a 10-kilogram payload, the robot can be adapted to many different environments.
Over the next few months, we’re hoping to see more examples of ANYmal C being deployed to do useful stuff in real-world environments, but for now, we do have a bit more detail from ANYbotics CTO Christian Gehring.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell us about the development process for ANYmal C?
Christian Gehring: We tested the previous generation of ANYmal (B) in a broad range of environments over the last few years and gained a lot of insights. Based on our learnings, it became clear that we would have to re-design the robot to meet the requirements of industrial customers in terms of safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. There were different prototype stages both for the new drives and for single robot assemblies. Apart from electrical tests, we thoroughly tested the thermal control and ingress protection of various subsystems like the depth cameras and actuators.
What can ANYmal C do that the previous version of ANYmal can’t?
ANYmal C was redesigned with a focus on performance increase regarding actuation (new drives), computational power (new hexacore Intel i7 PCs), locomotion and navigation skills, and autonomy (new depth cameras). The new robot additionally features a docking system for autonomous recharging and an inspection payload as an option. The design of ANYmal C is far more integrated than its predecessor, which increases both performance and reliability.
How much of ANYmal C’s development and design was driven by your experience with commercial or industry customers?
Tests (such as the offshore installation with TenneT) and discussions with industry customers were important to get the necessary design input in terms of performance, safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. Most customers ask for very similar inspection tasks that can be performed with our standard inspection payload and the required software packages. Some are looking for a robot that can also solve some simple manipulation tasks like pushing a button. Overall, most use cases customers have in mind are realistic and achievable, but some are really tough for the robot, like climbing 50° stairs in hot environments of 50°C.
Can you describe how much autonomy you expect ANYmal C to have in industrial or commercial operations?
ANYmal C is primarily developed to perform autonomous routine inspections in industrial environments. This autonomy especially adds value for operations that are difficult to access, as human operation is extremely costly. The robot can naturally also be operated via a remote control and we are working on long-distance remote operation as well.
Do you expect that researchers will be interested in ANYmal C? What research applications could it be useful for?
ANYmal C has been designed to also address the needs of the research community. The robot comes with two powerful hexacore Intel i7 computers and can additionally be equipped with an NVIDIA Jetson Xavier graphics card for learning-based applications. Payload interfaces enable users to easily install and test new sensors. By joining our established ANYmal Research community, researchers get access to simulation tools and software APIs, which boosts their research in various areas like control, machine learning, and navigation.
[ ANYmal C ] Continue reading