MABEL: U-M Robot to the Rescue

9/1/11Follow @XconomyDET

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 … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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