Video: MABEL Mimics Human Gait

Make way for MABEL, a new humanoid robot developed by university researchers that can walk and climb stairs like humans but which they claim is even more physically agile and energy efficient than its predecessor, Petman.

MABEL was developed by researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) and the University of Michigan, who took their cues from human locomotion to create a walking and running robot with a spring in its step -- literally, OSU assistant professor Jonathan Hurst, who led the robot's mechanical design, said in an interview with Design News. Professor Jessy Grizzle at Michigan was in charge of MABEL's control engineering.

"There are great big springs [in the robot's leg joints] made of the fiberglass material used in an archery bow," Hurst told us. "That nice big spring allows it to absorb energy and bounce on it... just like [human] tendons."

Funded in part by a $4.7 million research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- the same backers of Boston Dynamics' Petman robot, which also can run and walk up and down stairs -- MABEL runs on a lithium polymer battery rather than a gasoline-powered engine, like Petman. The National Science Foundation also financially backed the project.

In addition to this focus on energy efficiency, MABEL's designers -- who recently won a 2012 World-Changing Innovation award from Popular Mechanics for the robot -- also made a concerted effort to create MABEL with a "human-like or animal-like gait that is just as agile but takes less energy to get around."

"It really looks human-like," Hurst says. "It if walks up steps and stumbles, it then steps up again... It really looks like a person climbing stairs." He told us one of the keys to this motion is that MABEL, like humans, is constantly performing a balancing act as it moves, making its movements appear more natural.

Powered by an offboard computer and energy source, MABEL will soon have a next-generation companion, ATRIAS, which will bring its artificial intelligence and power source onboard, Hurst told us. This will allow ATRIAS to "walk around outside," as well as step sideways, something MABEL can't do. It also will include more powerful motors yet be lighter than MABEL.

Hurst said he and his team are building three identical copies of ATRIAS that will be distributed among OSU, Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon University as part of ongoing research to create robots that move as naturally as humans do. He foresees a number of applications for this research, including the development of exoskeletons and robots to help people suffering from paralysis to walk, something companies like Ekso Bionics are doing.

Creating robots with a natural spring in their joints also will lend itself to future development of prosthetic limbs that give amputees a more natural gait and range of motion, as well as the ability to dynamically adjust their step. Additionally, the research is conducive to the creation of humanoid robots that can be used in disaster scenarios, such as those being designed as part of DARPA's Robotics Challenge, Hurst said.

"Just having robots in the environment -- what we're doing is very related," he said, comparing it to the human movement of climbing a ladder, something that might be needed in a disaster-response scenario. "Once we can understand how that control works -- and we've just demonstrated that -- then people can be building systems that are better every year."

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