Designing robots to navigate the desert terrain is no easy feat, but that’s just what Aaron Johnson is doing and more. Johnson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, recently won the Army Research Office’s Young Investigator Award for designing robots that can interact with their surrounding environments.
Sparking Johnson’s interest was his days of testing robots in the Mojave Desert as a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania. He started to wonder how jumping and leaping characteristics could help guide robots through tricky terrain.
“It was clear that we could handle some terrain but not others-the bots had particular difficulty with areas where the rocks were bigger than their legs,” Johnson said.
Now, he will apply his research to his newest funded project as he helps robots climb and navigate rocky hills and steep terrain.
“What makes this challenging is the uncertainty that comes with the rough terrain,” said Johnson. “It’s not necessarily the steepness of the slope but the unevenness and the fact that every step is going to be a little bit different.”
Although the integration of sensors and cameras will help, the constant uncertainty of what’s coming around the corner poses numerous challenges. He said even the best cameras can’t overcome certain perspective issues. Additionally, there are other uncertainties when it comes to predicting contact variables, such as what’s coming into contact with the bot, the friction, and shape of the terrain. Any error in calibration or execution can cause the robot to lose its balance and slip or fall.
Johnson’s project will also address robust robot behavior, which will determine if the robot can get back up if a mistake is made. If the robot is robust to adapting, it will be more successful in navigating the unknown terrain. To design robots for this type of work, Johnson will have to develop robot feedback controls systems in combination with contact condition uncertainty.
Johnson will work with both wheeled and legged robots to see what design factors align with different applications.
“There’s only been a few places that I’ve seen a legged robot do something that a wheel really couldn’t do with all-wheel drive on,” Johnson said.
He also said that wheeled robots require more skill when it comes to driving than legged robots need for crossing terrain. He believes that moving forward his research will focus more on a machine that needs legs rather than wheels. Overall, the project will compare each type of robot and indicate which design should be used for better performance.
Ultimately, Johnson’s objective is to create robots that can travel universally over any type of terrain. This is in turn would enable the Army to use robots instead of soldiers for certain tasks.
This could also unveil other applications. Robots that can travel anywhere could explore parts of the world that humans can’t, reach remote areas and help scientists predict climate changes, and navigate unstructured environments such as messy homes or workplaces.
Filed Under: Product design, Robotics • robotic grippers • end effectors