Virginia Tech robo-dogs get the “natural” treatment

Researchers at Virginia Tech has recently published a report that shows their goal to build robots with more “bio-inspired gaits”. In other words, they want their own robo-dogs to walk more naturally like an actual four-legged animal.

According to the research, the spinal cord is the central balance control component of most vertebrates. Oscillatory neurons are tasked to reinforce rhythmic motion based on how the spinal cord adjusts. When combined with vision, most legged animals are able to navigate with an almost passive capacity.

To reproduce this basic biological capability, the researchers focused on software integration — they combined “robust control algorithms” with sensor data. This allows their robotic dogs to mimic a sense of balance that their actual biological counterparts could naturally do. Aside from this, the standard suite of autonomous driving technologies, such as LIDAR, was also integrated to further refine the environmental data that it has to analyze.

So far, Virginia Tech has three fully developed robotic dogs, all of which designed by Ghost Robotics, to proceed with the experiment reflecting their design philosophy. They have inertial measurement units to sense changes in motion or direction, encoders to know how far each individual moving component (legs) are with one another, and traditional environmental sensor to know its orientation with relation to the ground.

If all of this sounds familiar to you, then we definitely need to finally mention the elephant in the room — their design philosophy comes very, very close to what Boston Dynamics’ Spot is built for. Now, Boston Dynamics may have the upper hand when it comes to extended design period and number of prototypes. However, we can at least understand where Virginia Tech researchers are heading towards.

That is, to make artificial locomotion as natural as possible to what evolution has demonstrated us.

Festo, a German automation company, was certainly able to demonstrate this in terms of basic component design. While lacking the sophisticated software for autonomous navigation, the company was very successful in replicating many different types of efficient locomotion that animals do, from flapping wings, articulated leg joints, to even mimicking the complex flexibility of biological tentacles.

In the near future, the Virginia Tech researchers hope to be able to collaborate with other experts and organizations within the same field. Not only to improve the technologies themselves, but to step it up in order to build massive numbers of quad-pedal and bipedal robots that can communicate and coordinate with each other, just as how other robotic machines like drones can.

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