Researchers Reveal A Robot That's Primed And Ready To Hike To Your Rescue - No Matter Where You Are

It seems like whenever humankind gets just a bit too cocky - whenever we start to think we're the masters of all we survey - the world loves to remind us that we're wrong. Disasters - both natural and man-made - are an inevitable fact of life. While we've undoubtedly gotten better at predicting them, sometimes they'll still strike without warning, leaving potentially hundreds of thousands of victims wounded and stranded.

To make matters worse, often these disaster areas tend to be extremely dangerous, such that any human rescuers risk become victims that need rescuing themselves. Far better to send a robot in to do a human's job in such cases. Not only are they a sight hardier than your average flesh-and-blood first responder, they're also a touch more expendable. If a robotic rescuer ends up being trapped, at worst they can be salvaged later. If a human rescuer ends up trapped, though...

Yeah, you can put two and two together there. 

With all this in mind, it's really no surprise that so much of the robotics sector is dedicated to the production of such life-saving machines. The DARPA Robotics Challenge is itself wholly devoted to the development of such a device, and it seems like every other day we're hearing about a new innovation that'll allow robots to work harder, respond better, move faster, or become stronger. Stanford University's hiking robot is the latest innovation in the field - and it's curiously unaffiliated with the DARPA challenge.

Designed by a group of researchers led by Oussama Khatib, the unnamed machine - which admittedly, is still in the conceptual design phase of its life - makes use of a pair of 'smart' hiking poles to stabilize itself and allow it to move more quickly over rocky terrain. Stability, after all, has long been one of the most difficult problems facing humanoid robots.

"Maintaining humanoid robot stability in unstructured environments is nontrivial because robots lack human-like tactile sensing and require complex task-speci?c controllers to integrate information from multiple sensors," explained Khatib. "To deploy humanoid robots in cluttered and unstructured environments such as disaster sites, it is necessary to develop advanced techniques in both locomotion and control."

"[Therefore,] we propose to incorporate a pair of actuated smart staffs with vision and force sensors that transforms biped humanoids into tripeds, quadrupeds, or - more generally - SupraPeds."

The vision and force sensors in the "smart staffs" will work in tandem with a 3D panoramic sensor in the robot's head; together, they'll allow it to obtain a complete picture of its surroundings and formulate how best to proceed through them. The staffs are also capable of changing length as the robot moves, allowing it to more effectively adapt to uneven terrain. 

Although this robot has not yet been tested in the field, the researchers have worked with a simulation of the machine and have cited it as a success. They're using this simulation as a sort of proof-of-concept, and from it, they'll be designing a real-world device. You can check out a video of the simulation below.

Now...I've just got one question about the machine. How's it going to provide relief to victims in disaster zones if it needs to use its hands to hold the smart staffs? Are they going to equip the robot with an extra pair of arms, or the ability to stow its staffs once it reaches its destination? Unless they figure out some means of allowing the robot to interact with its environment, this doesn't really seem like much of a solution.