Robots are making serious inroads into industrial and service applications to assist with warehousing, distribution, processing, agriculture and operations.
In physical security, robots often augment or supplement guard services, or serve concierge tasks at a building entrance to administer COVID protocols or direct visitors. In construction, they assess a job site for safety, and in tasks that are simply too dangerous for humans, robots are often the first man in.
Robots come in many form factors—from disc-like room cleaners to robotic arms, rolling autonomous guards and canine-like replicas. Ongoing refinements in computer vision and imaging, motion control, motors and artificial intelligence continue to expand their use-cases. But what about the evolution of legged robots?
In the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, held in 2015, falls and spills were not uncommon during the competition. Boston Dynamics also released a video of its Atlas robot failing and falling—as a funny spoof and bloopers segment.
Testing the safety of legged robots
According to Science Daily and a study by The Ohio State University (OSU), robots may not be ready to walk in tandem with people and need more testing before real-world use. They are easily tripped and tipped over, creating unsafe work environments or potential dangers for personnel or workspaces. The study concludes that when it comes to the evolution of mobile robots, it may be a long time before legged robots are able to safely interact with and work alongside humans.
The study represents the first data-driven, scenario-based testing framework of its kind for legged robots—and could help direct the development of a safety benchmark applied to these robotic devices.
The team of OSU researchers published the study in the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems 2022 (released in January 2023). The study tested the safety of legged robots that rely on mechanical limbs for movement instead of wheeled components. It found that many current legged robotic models don’t always act predictably in response to real-life situations, meaning it’s hard to predict whether they’ll fail—or succeed—at any given task that requires movement.
“Our work reveals that these robotic systems are complex and, more importantly, anti-intuitive,” said Bowen Weng, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at OSU. “It means you can’t rely on the robot’s ability to know how to react in certain situations, so the completeness of the testing becomes even more important.”
One part of the research focused on a robot’s ability to move while performing tasks at different gaits, such as walking backward or stepping in place. Researchers tested the sure-footedness of legged robots, checking to see if they would fall if pushed in a way that altered their direction.
The study showed that while one robot failed to stay upright for three out of 10 trials when asked to slightly speed up its gait, another could remain upright for over 100 trials when pushed from its left side, but it fell over during five out of 10 trials when the same force was applied to its right side.
When robots fall or act unpredictably, they could present safety hazards during interactions with humans. The framework the research establishes is designed to help certify the commercial deployment of legged robots and establish a safety benchmark for robots created with different structures and properties.