They can climb rocks and poles, play soccer, roll, walk on two legs — or three — or six, and mimic the motion of amoebas. They have names like DARwIn, STriDER, CLIMBeR, and IMPASS. They were conceived, constructed, and tested in a one-of-a-kind nursery called RoMeLa (Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory) in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering under the supervision of director Dennis Hong.
In the future, some of their progeny may rank among the world’s most advanced and useful robots. Today, as prototypes, they are giving their human designers the most fascinating engineering education imaginable.
Blake Jeans, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in May 2008, spent the 2007-08 academic year working with mechanical engineering graduate student Shawn Kimmel on IMPASS (Intelligent Mobility Platform with Actuated Spoke System), a robot that’s shaped like a wheel with spokes, or legs, that can independently extend and contract to walk on unstructured terrain.
Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, IMPASS, Jeans explained, is a platform for research on robotic mobility.
"The increase in mobility we’re working on could have several potential uses, including search-and-rescue missions and exploration on Earth and other planets," Jeans said.
Jeans, who is returning to RoMeLa as a graduate student, is one of about 30 undergraduate engineering students who, along with 15 graduate students, have been getting hands-on experience, working on sponsored robotics projects under the direction of Hong, who teaches mechanical engineering at the university.
Working under the guidance of Hong and graduate student Karl Muecke, a group of undergraduate students formed Team SPRInt (Soccer Playing Robot with Intelligence) and created an autonomous humanoid robot they named “DARwIn” (Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence).
DARwIn was the only United States entry invited to compete in the Humanoid League of the international RoboCup 2007 in Atlanta.
The SPRInt and DARwIn teams also were invited by National Instruments (NI) to present the keynote demonstration during NI Week 2007 in Austin, Texas. While there, they won three awards, including the Most Outstanding Application of Virtual Instrumentation Award.
Hong says he still aspires to win the RoboCup trophy. This year’s competition is July 14-20 in Suzhou, China. Virginia Tech’s team will be there thanks, in part, to significant corporate support.
“Corporate sponsorship is helping us a lot, especially for RoboCup,” Hong said. “This is an expensive competition. It’s in China. We need to bring all our students and a lot of equipment including three of our humanoid robot soccer players. One of the Darwin robots costs about $18,000. We need to build three of them.”
Another RoMeLa invention that has met with great success in 2008 is STriDER (Self-excited Tripedal Dynamic Experimental Robot), a novel three-legged robot designed by Hong and mechanical engineering graduate students Derek Lahr, Ivette Morazzani, and Ping Ren.
“STriDER is designed to walk with high energy efficiency,” Morazzani said, describing the mechanism’s motion.
“STriDER’s height and long limbs make it ideal for surveillance because it can easily ‘see’ above bushes and other obstacles,” Morazzani said. “It can also be used for sensor deployment. The legs can be folded up and the whole robot can be launched into difficult-to-access areas — and the legs will absorb the shock of landing.”
Morazzani and her STriDER teammates won the Best Paper Award during the 2007 International Conference on Advanced Robotics, held in Jeju, South Korea. The group’s paper, “Novel Tripedal Mobile Robot and Considerations for Gait Planning Strategies Based on Kinematics,” has been published as a chapter in the book Recent Progress in Robotics.
The awards kept coming in 2008. RoMeLa’s Team CIRCA (Climbing Inspection Robot with Compressed Air), a group of four mechanical engineering seniors, won first place at the 2007-08 National Innovation Awards conducted by the Compressed Air and Gas Institute.
CIRCA members David McDowell, Cory Kaser, Nicholas Thayer, and Florian Böss used compressed air to power a serpentine robot designed for inspecting unsafe or hard-to-reach areas such as bridge structures, tall utility poles, or scaffolding or girders in construction sites.
Another recent honor is a fitting tribute to RoMeLa’s focus on graduate and undergraduate research. Maxon Motor USA, a leading producer of precision motor drive technology, presented Hong and his students with the company’s Excellence in Education Award.
RoMeLa’s watershed year was 2007, beginning with Hong’s win of a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award for his work on a Whole Skin Locomotion (WSL) robot inspired by amoeba.
CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Robot with Learning Intelligence), which will be the first of its kind in the United States, is a full-sized humanoid robot.
It is sponsored by the university's Student Engineering Council and is partially supported by then National Science Foundation.
The 5 foot tall humanoid robot will be used as a general humanoid research platform and also for the RoboCup Humanoid Teen size league for RoboCup 2009.
"Eventually [we] hope to make it walk around campus and give campus tours," said Hong.
"The robot begins in a tripod stance and then shifts its body weight, causing it to fall forward. As it falls, the middle leg swings in between the other two legs and catches the fall," says Morazzani.
"Simultaneously, STriDER's body rotates 180 degrees, preventing the legs from tangling."
STriDER also can easily change direction by simply switching the leg it swings.
Many of the technologies developed for the award-winning autonomous vehicle Odin is now transplanted into the brain of the next generation soccer playing humanoid robot "DARwIn II."
DARwIn II will be playing autonomous robotic soccer against the top teams from all around the world in RoboCup 2008.
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