Bipedal robots are immensely difficult to perfect making them one of the most extensively researched areas in mechanical engineering. Last month, Agility Robotics unleashed Cassie, the company’s first robot that somewhat resembles an ostrich without a head, feathers, and wings and is able to walk over different sorts of terrain with a stable gait, maintaining a pretty much acceptable speed.
One may wonder why so much of research is going into designing a bipedal robot when wheels or tracks can do the trick. Damion Shelton, CEO of Agility Robotics, has an answer to that and here’s what he told The Verge: “If you consider humans from a design standpoint, what we were designed for is being extremely agile in an extremely cluttered environment.”
Shelton says that robots on wheels or tracks will not have the same freedom of movement when it comes to buildings that can only be accessed through stairs or cumbersome steps or ledges terming them as “legacy buildings.”
“Or, if you want to be at ground level for the task you’re doing — like package delivery or on-site inspection,” bipedal robots would be the way to go, says Shelton.
He goes on further to explain to The Verge giving the example of scanning a yard in 3D. A drone could do the job by hovering around and even flying in and out of buildings, but all that would require supervision.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, for a robot on wheels or tracks, to maneuver stairs, steps and bumpy terrain all of which can be achieved by a robot with legs because of its human-like mobility.
According to Shelton, the bipedal bot can prove its worth in scenarios like reconnaissance missions for the armed forces and in disaster situations like exploring the epicenter of an earthquake or a botched nuclear reactor.
“We’re not saying it’s the right solution for everything,” says Shelton. “In particular highly engineered environments, like inside modern factories where you need heavy lift capacity. Yeah, use wheels for that!”
Similar to ostriches, where the inspiration actually comes from, Cassie has three degrees of mobility freedom in its hips, flexible ankles that are powered and knees that have a one-way flexibility. This contributes toward a natural gait and the ability to maneuver in a way similar, if not identical, to our own.
Cassie is an improved version of the earlier bipedal robot ATRIAS, built by researchers at Oregon State University. Now, Agility Robotics may be a new company, but the men behind Cassie are the same who were responsible for the ATRIAS robot as well – Agility Robotics is a spin-off of the Oregon State University having the same brains behind Cassie that were responsible for ATRIAS.
Cassie’s ability to move its legs forward and backward, side to side, and also rotate them at the same time makes Cassie steerable in a way that ATRIAS was not capable of
The powered ankles allow it to stand in one place without having to adjust its feet position the way ATRIAS did constantly. Plus Cassie has ample battery power to run some heavy-duty onboard computers.
Cassie has a lightweight chassis, and its design ingenuity enables it to absorb shock in a natural manner similar to humans when walking. Unlike other robots, Cassie does not need a safety harness as it is sturdy enough to survive falls and this speaks a great deal about the kind of research and work put toward its designing and mechanics.
One thing can be said with conviction, though – Cassie will not bury its head in the sand when its services are required.