‘World’s fastest’ bipedal robot maintains human-like gait

Engineers have unveiled what they claim is the world’s fastest bipedal robot with knees.

The prototype can reach a peak speed of 6.8mph (10.9km/h) and negotiate rough terrain at lower speeds — all while maintaining a human-like gait.

The research group at Michigan University said it envisages a range of potential applications for the robot, which is called MABEL.

‘The robotics community has been trying to come up with machines that can go places where humans can go, so a human morphology is important,’ said Prof Jessy Grizzle of Michigan. ‘If you would like to send in robots to search for people when a house is on fire, it probably needs to be able to go up and down stairs, step over the baby’s toys on the floor and manoeuvre in an environment where wheels and tracks may not be appropriate.’

MABEL was built in 2008 in collaboration with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and the team has spent the years since improving the feedback algorithms that enable the robot to keep its balance while reacting to its environment in real time.

MABEL started off walking smoothly and quickly over flat surfaces. Then it moved on to uneven ground at slower speeds. It took its first real jog in late July, according to the team.

To achieve a human-like gait, the engineers distributed MABEL’s weight like a person’s — it has a heavier torso and light, flexible legs with springs that act like tendons. While running, MABEL is in the air for 40 per cent of each stride for the so-called flight phase; this compares with less than 10 per cent of each step for previous bipedal robots, according to the team.

Grizzle said that the technology used to build MABEL could also be used for exoskeletons that enable wheelchair-bound people to walk again or for powered prosthetic limbs that behave like their biological counterparts.

MABEL is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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