Robots that can venture into disaster zones in place of humans need to be tough enough to cope in hazardous environments. So far, the only viable robots are wheeled or tracked vehicles but these cannot cope with many terrains and situations.
Legged robots that mimic the robustness and versatility of animals could be a solution. But designing quadruped automatons that are dynamic enough to cope with any scenario has proved problematic.
Step forward HyQ2Max - the latest and most powerful four-legged robot to come out of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT).
Animal-like in posture and movement, HyQ2Max is an improved version of their hydraulic quadruped robot HyQ.
"Much like a cat or a goat that is very agile on rough terrain, this robot can in the future help in very unstructured environments, for example after an earthquake, after a tsunami or after a house has collapsed for other reasons; these kind of robots can be applied in an environment where the terrain is difficult and where you don't want to send people," explained Claudio Semini, who is leading the research.
To protect itself while deployed in a structure damaged in an earthquake, for example, HyQ2Max is designed to be robust against the impact of falling objects. In addition all sensitive parts like sensors, valves, actuators and electronics are protected inside the structure.
HyQ2Max's main designer was mechanical design engineer Jake Goldsmith who made its torso from aerospace-grade aluminum alloy, with lightweight fiberglass and Kevlar covers protecting the onboard computer.
Key to HyQ2Max's potential for real-world application is its ability to get back on its feet even when knocked completely over. With its larger joint ranges and higher joint torques, HyQ2Max can right itself in a matter of seconds.
"So we want to put the robot down on the ground and see how it gets back up on its feet. So this can happen in reality when the robot, for example, slips or is somehow falling down for whatever reason; the robot needs to be able to get up again," said Semini.
While the robot is being designed with search and rescue missions in mind, Semini said that it could prove a useful tool for many industries.
"There's a lot of markets that have a bigger potential. Other markets are, for example; construction, or the forestry industry, but there's also maintenance, remote inspection - there's a various range of applications where these high mobility vehicles will be applied in the future," he said.
Ultimately the team believes quadruped robots operating in real-world applications will need to manipulate objects at some point. They are working on a pair of dextrous arms that will be mounted on the front of HyQ2Max and other IIT quadrupeds. This 'centaur-style' robot would combine the advantages of a stable four-legged base with the ability to handle objects.