Human Exoskeleton Gives Robot Kung-Fu Reflexes

A marriage made in 'Pacific Rim.'

If you’ve ever wanted to watch a robot send a haymaker through a sheet of drywall, a droid named Hermes is about to make your day. If Hermes’ havoc-wreaking skills look especially human, well, that’s because they are. The bot is controlled via a person in an exoskeletal suit. In this case, the ghosts in the machine are stubbly Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers, an unlikely group to stand at the vanguard of supersoldierdom.

The overall effect is pure mecha fantasy: When PhD student Joao Ramos throws a punch, Hermes copies a split second later. But the real advantage to Hermes’ uppercuts are reflexes, which keep the bipedal robot balanced.

Walking on two feet, if you’re not a human, is notoriously tough (there are very few mammalian obligate bipeds). ASIMO, for instance, uses what’s called Zero Moment Point, a feedback loop between foot sensors and actuators to keep the robot at a baseline position (hence, ZMP). Similar feedback systems using cameras, Ramos pointed out in an M.I.T. news story, can be so slow that robots have a tough time reacting to sudden changes. Hermes doesn’t have to worry about any of that because he’s being controlled — on some level — by a central nervous system.

When Hermes hits or gets hit, the exosuit registers the blow and the human operator can react. Without such feedback, say the researchers, the momentum of a punch would propel Hermes through the drywall. Instead, Ramos can lean back after Hermes connects. The end goal of Hermes could be something like a disaster response robot (disasters of the future are going to be just infested with robots). Also down the line, Ramos envisions wearing an entire feedback suit and goggles, because if you’re going to perform android kung-fu, you might as well go full robot.

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