IHMC (Institute for Human & Machine Cognition) researchers are developing a new type of bipedal humanoid robot capable of performing gymnastics. As silly as that might sound, it’s far from being a joke. Humanoid robots such as Boston Dynamics Atlas and NASA’s Valkyrie, for example, are very capable of walking, jumping, and even climbing, but they don’t have the fluidic movement range we humans have. Biological muscles give us a range of motion that’s difficult to copy or simulate, and while robots can match our speed and torque, hardware has yet to approximate tightly packed muscle groups.
IHMC’s Nadia robot (named after the gymnast Nadia Comaneci) will bring bipedal a few steps closer to human motion, at least that’s the premise the researchers have in mind. At this point, all the researchers have are a 3D-printed mockup of what the robot will look like, and provide insight on how its limbs will be capable of moving. The facsimile helps the engineers get a better idea of how all the components will function together, and how the joints and actuators will provide the range of motion they’re looking for.
As it stands right now, Nadia will be powered hydraulically, using Moog’s Integrated Smart Actuators (ISAs), which were designed in collaboration with IIT for their HyQ quadruped robot. Those ISAs are plug-and-play designed and feature integrated servo-valves, control electronics, sensors, and onboard communications that make it easy to manipulate robotic limbs. They’re also 3D-printed out of titanium and have a significantly higher power-to-weight ratio than humans, which does make them bulky and tricky to work with when it comes to robotic limbs.
A robot with the flexibility of a gymnast, or close to that range of motion does seem a little like science fiction, but that’s what I thought about the Atlas when it first debuted, and now it can maintain balance, perform backflips, and jump over obstacles.