Thursday, 31 October 2019

A robot mule for the mountains

UniTrento and the Italian Institute of Technology team up to extend the skills of HyQ-Blue, the quadruped robot made in IIT

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It will not put an end to the use of animals to carry loads on rough terrain, but the hydraulic quadruped robot HyQ-Blue is definitely opening the way to promising developments.

The robot, which is at the heart of a collaboration agreement between the University of Trento and the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, was transferred from Genova to Trento, where it will remain for three years.

The collaboration is the result of the excellent relationship between the two institutions and of the commitment of IIT researcher Michele Focchi and Andrea Del Prete, former IIT researcher and current researcher at the Department of Industrial Engineering of the University of Trento.

The long term objective of the project is to create robust hardware, software and algorithms for quadruped robots that can access remote areas with uneven terrain, and are therefore capable of working in case of natural disasters, of reaching where humans cannot, and of carrying heavy loads in the mountains or in agriculture.

Locomotion control will be one of the first challenges to tackle.

Designed and built at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, by the Dynamic Legged Systems laboratory led by Claudio Semini, HyQ-Blue is part of a series of HyQ hydraulically actuated (non-electric) animals that have been developed by IIT researchers since 2007 taking inspiration from nature. 

The design of the robot is inspired by big, strong animals that are capable of moving on any type of terrain. HyQ-Blue weights 90 kilos and is 1 meter long, its body is in aluminium alloy, and it can walk, trot, climb stairs up and down, carry and haul loads, just like the mules of Alpine troops. 

Hydraulic actuators make HyQ one of the few quadruped robots that are capable of walking fast and with precision at the same time. In addition to positioning sensors thanks to which it can plan its steps carefully, it also has balance sensors and force control sensors for a smooth interaction with the ground and to walk with a light step. 

HyQ-Blue is also capable of collecting data and to create, in real time, a three-dimensional map of its surroundings, to avoid obstacles on its way and choose where to place the next step, as any animal would do. As for the most advanced controls (moving forward/backward/sideways, turning around, crouching and standing up) HyQ is wireless operated using a joypad, and the operator receives the map of the robot's surroundings in real time thanks to the images acquired by the cameras it carries.

The agreement between the University of Trento and the Italian Institute of Technology

The development of the HyQ-Blue quadruped robot is part of an agreement between the University of Trento and the Italian Institute of Technology. The two institutions will work together for three years to carry out research work in the field of legged robotics, which is focused on robots that are capable of walking like animals or insects.

The operational phases of the project include: the setup of the HyQ-Blue robot laboratory; software improvements; sensor improvements; optimization of the locomotion software; study of locomotion algorithms for uneven and rough terrain and for jump trajectories for quadruped robots.

The scientific coordinators of the project are Andrea Del Prete for UniTrento and Claudio Semini for the IIT.

The activities in place for HyQ-Blue also fall within the European H2020 project Memmo, which includes Andrea Del Prete with Luca Olivieri, PhD candidate, and a number of other partners (in addition to the University of Trento, Max-Planck Institute, the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, IDIAP and LAAS/CNRS in Toulouse, which is also the project coordinator).

The press release (PDF | 102 KB) includes comments by Andrea Del Prete and Michele Focchi, scientific coordinators at UniTrento and IIT, respectively.