The Lab Making Robots Walk Through Fire And Ride Segways

BRUCE HUANG

Benefits of robots: 1. They never get tired. 2. They can lift very heavy things. 3. They can walk through (controlled) conflagrations on college campuses.

At least, that is, the robots in and around roboticist Jessy Grizzle’s lab at the University of Michigan. Specifically, Grizzle is working with a remote-controlled biped called Cassie, a research platform that roboticists are using to master bipedal locomotion. So Grizzle isn’t just making Cassie walk through fire: He’s experimenting with other extreme use cases, like riding a Segway. Are those experiments a bit silly? Sure. But it’s also a great way to test robots in extreme situations and see what their limits are—and share that research openly. Because researchers can load Cassie with their very own walking-jogging-crouching code.

You might notice the Cassie still walks a bit gingerly. But Grizzle and his team are constantly tweaking the biped’s algorithms, then testing it all out in the real world … that’s sometimes on fire. It still struggles with larger obstructions like fallen tree limbs, but these are the kinds of challenges that are going to push the platform forward. Theoretically, you could outfit a Cassie—which would set you back a few hundred thousand dollars, by the way—to see straight through the smoke with lidar. It could see things no human firefighter could.

“I think it is an interesting demonstration of the ability to get robots out of the lab and into the real world, with a view toward robots that are able to perform useful tasks and get humans out of harm’s way,” writes Caltech’s Aaron Ames, one of a handful of roboticists who’s using the Cassie platform to study robotic bipedal locomotion. “We are still a long ways from autonomous firefighting robots, but the robots of today—and the dynamic walking control algorithms that have been developed recently—take an important step in this direction.”

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