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Robots Inspired By Nature, Blend In With Society

The Digital Human Research Centre at the University of Tokyo has created a robot that can factor in violent blows while maintaining balance.

The HRP3L-JSK robot, which looks like a mechanical rendition of two legs halted at the waist, walks just like a human. In the featured YouTube video, its researcher tries to topple it over by kicking it, but the robot rapidly recognises the angle of the blow and recedes in the opposite direction by gently planting one foot behind the other; it literally takes a few steps back. To do so it evaluates a possible 170 trajectories in one millisecond and calculates the best reaction.

But you don’t notice these calculations or its metallic skeletal structure, because it eerily movies like a human. It can walk at a pace of 5km per hour and jump on the spot; although The Verge correctly notes the robot has yet to master landing.

This engineering achievement could pave the way for automated robots that tend to labour intensive jobs, or even lends a helping hand around the house. In fact, DARPA, an agency of the US Department of Defence, has commissioned the development of such robots.  

The Aerospace Robotics and Control Lab at the University of Illinois has also produced a milestone robotic achievement. They’ve produced a robotic-bird that could aid the elderly or the disabled by helping them fetch objects or relay video messages, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Called ornithopters, the robot is characterised by the navigating control mechanisms used by birds when flying, allowing it to perform a soft landing, such as perching itself on a human hand.

By adopting flight behaviour common to the natural bird, people will find it easier to interact with ornithopters than they would with micro-aerial vehicles styled upon planes and helicopters. They’re design also makes them more agile and capable of complex manoeuvres.

Just like throwing a paper plane, the robotic bird is thrown from a height and uses its mechanical flaps to navigate. As it approaches its target, a horizontal flap on its tale engages, slowing it down and allowing it to perch on a person’s hand. Jenny Roderick from the University of Illinois narrates the perching process undertaken by the robotic-bird. 

“A typical perching manoeuvre consists of a gliding phase which brings the aircraft suitably close to the target. Thereafter it pitches up to a high angle of attack and decelerates rapidly as it perches on the target.” 

Its ability to glide helps the robot conserve a large amount of energy.

The project was founded by research conducted in Aditya Paranjape PhD thesis and articles written with Soon-Jo Chung, an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Illinois.

“The ability to perform perched landings on a human hand endows our robot with the ability to operate around humans,” says Paranjape. He also sees the military making use of ornithopters.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles [are] capable of operating closely with human soldiers in tight urban environments for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance applications,” says Paranjape.

An ornithoptor complete with sensors and an onboard pilot is estimated at US$500 with military variants expected to be more expensive due to the use of more tolerant materials.

“The military versions would cost about twice as much, at least, because they would most probably use custom-made, highly durable air frame and joints.”