For decades the development of walking robots has been stymied by a misunderstanding of how our bodies coordinate the complicated movements involved in traversing a varied terrain. In essence, we thought that our brains regulated arm and leg motion by coordinating every individual muscle fiber within the system...but this "style" of thinking requires far too much processing power to ever be functional in the ever-unpredictable real world. For example, watch Honda's fancy ASIMO robot short out on a flight of stairs that you could likely bound up in a few moments (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dKPkL2oto0). Feel superior, you are.
We now understand that our nervous system streamlines the process of limb movement by specifying whole joint angles over time. Very very simply put, your body knows that walking requires the joints of your legs to hit certain marks and strives to recover to those marks if the environment changes. The team over at Boston Dynamics has built a series of robots that incorporate this "joint angle" processing system. Check out "Big Dog" as she navigates ice, hills, and the odd kick from her developers and be impressed by her stability. (
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1czBcnX1Ww) Their latest design, "Cheetah", can run up to 29 mph, which is 1 mph faster than Usain Bolt's 100-meter dash. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chPanW0QWhA) Though...ironically nowhere near as fast as an actual cheetah which would blaze by at 65 mph. Biology is an amazing thing!
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Thanks to Barb Finlay, Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, our consulting editor for the week!