The future of robotics takes the floor, and more, at biomechanics conference

August 21, 2010 - via Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — Dr. Dolittle didn’t step to the podium. But his pushmi-pullyu made an appearance.
The four-legged, two-headed llama-like creature of children’s literature has become science fiction; actually science, but no fiction.

The mechanical creature ran across a parking lot, hiked through a forest, following a man and heeling like a dog.
Some 600 people from 20 countries saw this on a big screen at the Rhode Island Convention Center during the 34th annual conference of the American Society of Biomechanics that began Wednesday and ends Saturday. For the first time, it’s in Rhode Island.

The event isn’t a big draw for the public, but prototypes from the event eventually could be.
“The reality is, what people are doing here now will have an application in about 10 years,” said Tom Roberts, conference co-chairman and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, co-sponsor with Rhode Island Hospital.

The conference topics include joints and muscles, balance and movement. Prosthetics, as always, play a prominent part, slowly approaching the bionic man of “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV show. “When we get there, we’ll have Steve Austin,” Roberts said.

Until then, how’d you like to have a bionic fish?

“Most people focus on the body of a fish because that’s what you see when you go to a restaurant,” said George Lauder, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard. “But more interesting are the fins.”

Lauder gave a talk about “Fish Robotics and Biomechanics.” It’s not about replacing aquarium fish with fake ones. It’s about building fake fish to better understand real ones, then putting what we learn to practical use. “Altering the tail of a fish is a hard thing to do,” Lauder said. “You can’t pull out scissors. When you build a robotic fish, you can change the parameters at will.” The goal is to perfect man-made fin motion for underwater propulsion. “The Navy is interested,” Lauder said. “Propellers are noisy and suck power.”

Everyone might someday be interested in what James Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, has developed: vibrating insoles. Don’t think massage. Think balance, which we lose as we age.

Vibration is stimulation for our nervous system, benefiting our balance, and keeping us from falling. “You find the Goldilocks levels,” Collins said. “There is an optimal noise level.” The level is so low you can’t hear it. But your body can feel it, tests showed. Several companies, Collins said, are negotiating to bring the insoles to market in about a year.

Now back to the pushmi-pullyu. Actually, it’s called BigDog, created by Boston Dynamics. Marc Raibert, one of the company’s founders, said the Army is interested in the device. “There is a lot of incentive in the military to lighten the soldier’s load,” Raibert said. Picture two men, each bent at the waist, facing each other and holding each other’s shoulders. That’s basically BigDog, which can climb hills, traverse uneven terrain and instantaneously adjust when it slips on ice.

“In the media, there seems to be no gap between robot, armed robot and armed robot making its own decisions,” Raibert said.

This robot, Raibert said, would do what it’s told: carry supplies. It’s a mechanical pack mule. You see a lot of this at the conference, scientists making machines that mimic animals

Sangbae Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, created a wall-climbing robotic gecko.
“If you didn’t see a bird, I don’t think you’d ever think to build an airplane, or even think of flight,” Kim said. “Looking at biological systems allows us to see in a different perspective.”

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Author:Bryan Rourke