MABEL: U-M Robot to the Rescue
Dateline: 2030, give or take. We’re at war. Bullets are flying, ordnance is exploding, and conditions are beyond dangerous. Soldiers are scattered across the landscape, bleeding and waiting for help. A commander gives the order, and suddenly a fleet of robots storms the battlefield to pull the wounded to the safety of waiting rescue helicopters.
What may sound like the plot of a “Saving Private Ryan” meets “Blade Runner” science fiction movie is actually a potential future application of MABEL, a robot built in a University of Michigan lab. The robot is believed to be the world’s fastest bipedal machine with knees, a prototype for robots that engineers hope can one day serve as soldiers or rescuers.
“It’s quite exciting,” says Jessy Grizzle, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I have never seen a machine doing a motion like this.”
Grizzle built MABEL in 2008 in collaboration with Jonathan Hurst, who was then a doctoral student at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Grizzle and U-M doctoral students Koushil Sreenath and Hae-Won Park have spent the years since trying to perfect MABEL’s humanoid gait. They’ve been progressively improving the feedback algorithms that enable the robot to keep its balance while reacting to its environment in real time.
“We envision some extraordinary potential applications for legged robot research: exoskeletons that enable wheelchair-bound people to walk again or that give rescuers super-human abilities, and powered prosthetic limbs that behave like their biological counterparts,” said developer Hurst in a press release. Hurst is now an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University.
When researchers in the field of robotics first got started, robots had legs like pogo sticks. Even today few robots can run, and Grizzle says MABEL is the the only one to do it in a manner so closely human. Its weight is distributed like a person’s, with a heavier torso and light, flexible legs with springs that act as tendons. MABEL can run as fast as seven miles per hour.
Since MABEL is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), all of the technology, descriptions, algorithms, and plans associated with the project are public domain and posted on the Web.
“I’m not exactly an old hippie, but I still live by the ideal that if you’re working at a university with taxpayer money, you ought to make the technology available to everyone for free,” Grizzle says.
Grizzle says he and his students need to build a good proof of concept, which will hopefully entice someone else to handle the robot’s mass production. In fact, a “big company” recently visited Grizzle’s lab and is interested in doing just that—though he declined to reveal the company’s identity. Grizzle adds that the NSF’s goal is to make sure students who work on the MABEL project emerge highly trained so they can go on to do their own high-tech entrepreneurial work, while DARPA hopes that Boeing or a similar company serving the defense industry will take an interest in commercializing MABEL’s technology.
Grizzle points to this year’s disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan as exactly the kind of situation where a mechanical first responder could have saved lives.
“A robot could have walked in and shut down the reactors,” Grizzle says. “I think now you’ll see a renewed effort toward machines that can work in much more rugged environments, and MABEL is a good start.”