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A new step forward for robots

Engineers decode human balance to build walking robots.

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Jerry Pratt (l.) with research associates push M2V2 to test its balance at the Institute for Human Cognition in Pensacola, Fla.

Carmen K. Sisson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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For the past 30 years, scientists and technicians have grappled with making robots walk on two legs. Humans do it effortlessly, but the simple act has a lot of hidden complexity. And until recently, computers were very bad at it.

Now, several teams across the country are refining the first generation of robots that are close to walking like people. That includes the ability to recover from stumbles, resist shoves, and navigate rough terrain.

In walks PETMAN, designed by Boston Dynamics in Waltham, Mass. The two-legged robot saunters with uncanny realism. The android has no upper body, just steel and plastic legs attached to a system of power cables. But it walks on its own, using the same heel-to-toe motion that humans use. When pushed from the side, PETMAN sidesteps to recover its balance. The robot even wears shoes.

Why make a robot like this? Researchers say walking robots provide them with a benchmark to gauge engineering precision, a chance to improve the lives of older people, and the ability to create more useful machines capable of navigating a world built for humans.

In PETMAN’s case, the Army, which funds the project, needs a machine that can simulate realistic human motions to test dangerous equipment such as chemical protection gear. Boston Dynamics plans to deliver a version with a head and a torso by early 2011.

Marc Raibert, founder and president of Boston Dynamics, says the secrets of balance were almost a complete mystery back in 1980, when he and other robotics experts started the Leg Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In 1986 he moved the Leg Lab to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

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