Hydraulic actuators will give Nadia a unique combination of flexibility and power
The robotics group at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola, Fla., has an enormous amount of experience with walking robots. They came in second at the DARPA Robotics Challenge with their Running Man Atlas, one of just three teams to score a perfect 8 out of 8, and they’ve continued to advance bipedal locomotion using both Atlas and NASA’s Valkyrie. We write about their research all the time—just a few months ago, they taught Atlas to walk with straight legs, much like a human does.
Humans set a very high standard for bipedal mobility. We’re well designed for it in both hardware and software, and we can do some absolutely amazing things.
Getting robots to do the same kinds of things that humans can is an intimidating challenge, requiring both complex hardware and innovative software working together. It’s hard to say which is more difficult, but you can get a sense of the current state of things when you compare what humanoid robots are capable of in simulation with what happens when you try to run that same software on the real robot. There are many reasons why this is the case, but the fundamental problem (or, one of them) is that we’re trying to get robots to do what humans can do without access to hardware that’s anywhere near as good. Biological muscles are incredible things, and while electric or hydraulic actuators can compete with them on things like speed and torque, there’s no way of getting around the fact that the hardware is far too bulky to be able to replicate the densely packed muscle groups that let humans do what they do.
All full-size bipedal robots have this problem, including Atlas and Valkyrie, but IHMC has been using them anyway, since there really aren’t all that many alternative platforms that are accessible for researchers. It’s gotten to a point where IHMC wants to do more than these platforms are capable of, so they’ve decided to do the sensible thing and build their own humanoid from scratch. And if you’re going to do that, why not crank everything up to 11 and decide to build not just any humanoid robot, but a humanoid robot gymnast?