Spiders have too many legs… this robot has too few

And might be creepy for the same reason. But it’s the best kind of creepy. Because you can’t give a spider a nickname (“Come here, 8-legs-and-bites-me-in-my-sleep”), but you can nickname a one-legged robot.

Enter “Thumper.” Maybe the video will help you understand why he’s called that. (She?)

There’s something endearing about how he goes in circles, thumping his
robotic life away, resigned to never really go anywhere,
all in The Name of Science.
Professor Hurst standing next to "Thumper," his one-legged robot

Thumper uses fiberglass springs to get around. Hopefully it won't stomp on your feet. That's professor Hurst, by the way.

Professor Jonathan Hurst is the respectable gent in charge of the project—he actually worked on Thumper while he was in graduate school (and is now getting going on a project called ATRIAS, with several OSU students (graduate and undergrad)). And he was kind enough to talk to GetReal about his work:

How was the idea to research one-legged locomotion formulated?

A single leg is the first step to building bipeds or quadrupeds. The basic model for all running animals, including humans, insects, or horses, is mass bouncing on a spring; this model approximates the motion of the center of mass for all running animals. If we can build a single leg and understand how to make it function effectively, then we can add another leg easily.

What major hurdles have there been in conducting research, and how far has research gotten?

Image of the ATRIAS robot squatting

This is ATRIAS, which is still under construction. Expect to hear more about this in the future.

Well, it’s an ongoing process. Hurdles are mostly due to the fact that we don’t understand legged locomotion well; we don’t know how large the leg springs should be, we don’t know how to control the machine well, and in general, we don’t have a good understanding of how animals do it. So, we invent ideas or hypotheses about the methods animals use and some methods that would work well for a robot, and we try it. As we try things, we see what works well and what doesn’t, and start to get a better picture of how legged locomotion works. I’d say we’re halfway there to understanding the very basics, and being able to walk and run over rough ground efficiently. Once we’ve demonstrated that well, then there are going to be a host of additional details regarding feet or complications in the leg morphology to add robustness to the control or improve efficiency.

What are some practical applications?

Hurst's students working on ATRIAS

Students hard at work too. Making one-legged robots.

Once we understand the science behind legged locomotion, which is our goal, then we can apply the knowledge to building powered prosthetic limbs, assistive exoskeletons for disabled people, exoskeletons for military use, and robots that are capable of navigating through human environments, including stairs and cluttered rooms.

Here’s another video from 2007, from when Professor Hurst was featured on EngineeringTV. He mentions how he uses differentials to help Thumper move.

ATRIAS, the project he’s got going at OSU, is for the purpose. But of course he’s not doing work on ATRIAS alone; working alone in the world of science is just not very cool. But know what is cool? Being a young, hip professor and getting to work with young, hip minds who want to build robots.

These folks are all going to work together to build ATRIAS to its best potential. Hurst and his students will work to get their robot to navigate difficult terrain very quickly. So they can win the W-Prize.


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