Each week, staff writer Paul Wood interviews a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet JOÃO RAMOS, a University of Illinois mechanical science and engineering professor who collaborated with MIT Professor Sangbae Kim to develop Little HERMES, a small-scale bipedal robot designed to go places that humans dare not.
What got you started in robotics?
My first contact with robots occurred during my undergraduate studies when I joined my university’s robotics team, RioBotz. The team focused on building combat robots to participate in national and international events. With them I learned how to design robust robots.
What kind of work is involved in creating a bipedal robot?
Bipedal robots are different from conventional robot arms that you see in factories or wheeled robots in the sense that they need to precisely control the forces they apply on the ground with their feet in order to walk. For that, we developed custom motors that are able to generate large forces but also robust enough to take impacts with the ground when the robot walks. The motors are the same as the ones on the MIT Cheetah.
Does this robot have humanlike reflexes?
I believe you can say that. The robot itself has some basic intelligence to balance. The role of the human operator is to coordinate the robot’s torso with the stepping location and the force generation. The synergistic coordination of the whole body allows it to balance and walk similarly to the human operator.
Do you have the capability of seeing what the robot sees? How about what it feels?
The system for the previous robot, HERMES, also included goggles that allowed the operator to see what the robot was looking at. This is not a something we included on Little HERMES yet, but it’s definitely in the plans for future versions.
The operator “feels” the robot’s sense of balance via a human-machine interface that we developed. It is somewhat like the movie “Pacific Rim.” If the robot starts to fall, the operator can sense that and command it to take a step. If the robot is pushed, the operator can also feel that and choose to do something about it. That is why its called bilateral teleoperation -- the operator commands the robot to move but also feels what happens between the robot and its environment.
Tell us about your motion-capture suit for the human who controls the robots.
The motion-capture suit is part of the interface we developed. Basically, it measures the spatial position of the operator torso and feet at very high speeds (1,000 times a second). It can also measure the forces that the operator applies against the ground to walk. That information is scaled to robot proportions (which is much smaller and lighter) and the robot reproduces the walking/stepping/jumping motion accordingly.
Can the researcher in the suit control things like balance and gait?
For now, we can control stepping, balancing, little jumps and some simple walking.
What’s next for Little HERMES?
Our plan is to merge the results that we achieved now with Little HERMES for balancing and walking with our previous work of upper-body teleoperation with HERMES (watch it here). The idea is to create a machine capable of performing physically demanding tasks in scenarios that are dangerous or unreachable for humans, such as firefighting, police operations, disaster response, etc. We imagine the robot should be able to push heavy doors, move debris, lift heavy payloads, etc.
Does the technology transfer to other types of robots?
Yes. One of the interesting results is that the operator can control other types of mobile robots (quadrupeds, wheeled, hexapods) using the same strategy because we map the basic motion strategy using a simple model instead of mapping the actual joint (knee, hip, ankle, etc.) angles.
TECH TIDBITS ... from JOÃO RAMOS
Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? I follow some really interesting channels on YouTube for engineering and robotics such as Boston Dynamics, Agility Robotics, and some others. There’s a really fun and interesting one for mechanical engineering and machining called “This old Tony.” I don’t use Twitter or Instagram at all.
On Facebook I follow ... I use Facebook to keep in touch with old friends. I don’t really follow any company or people other than MIT or University of Illinois pages.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? For work, I’ve just finished a really interesting book about academic careers called “The Professor Is In.” For fun, I like historical novels from authors such as Bernard Cornwell. I recently finished his book “Azincourt.”
Do you have any wearable electronics? Just my phone.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? The professionals I admire are usually engineers, professors or athletes. Some of them are Rodney Brooks, Marc Raibert, and Neville Hogan.