Teaching Robots Rock Climbing

Kris Hauser, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke, has secured a three-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Robotics Initiative to “boldly go where every human has gone before.”

While even infants can figure out how to scoot about on uneven surfaces, robots are heavily programmed and tuned to handle a narrow range of scenarios, which means that even the slightest departure from these scenarios usually spells disaster. Instead, Hauser wants to build algorithms that will allow a robot to learn how to handle hurdles on its own by reasoning about its movements – beginning with the most basic steps and then leading up to challenging climbing moves.

Hauser and colleagues from Stanford University and UC Santa Barbara will begin work in October on an existing four-legged robot called the RoboSimian, which was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Motiv Robotics. From this starting point, the researchers will have to integrate new hardware designs, planning algorithms and control strategies to meet their goals.

“We hope to develop a robot that can navigate all sorts of terrain, up to climbing at the level of a novice human on vertical and overhanging surfaces,” said Hauser. “Along the way, we’ll have to make scientific advances in strong hands and feet inspired by humans and animals, algorithms for planning foot, hand, and body placements, and balance strategies that coordinate the robot’s whole body.”

The team plans to put their robot through a gauntlet of different environments during development, including rock piles, vehicle interiors, jungle gyms and an indoor rock climbing wall. These trials will take place in a new Duke Robotics lab, built as part of North Hall renovation slated to be completed by the end of the year.

Besides direct applications such as planetary exploration and search and rescue missions, Hauser adds, “This science will help all robots move smarter.” Demonstrations with the robot will support ongoing K-12 STEM outreach efforts, and the project also has the potential to reveal new biomechanical principles involved in human climbing, which could even help make the sport of rock climbing safer for athletes.

Learn more about Duke Robotics at robotics.pratt.duke.edu.