Engineers look to nature for answers

Though many think of academia as full of recluse professors, locked away in their messy, book-filled offices, Luther Palmer, assistant professor of research in the College of Engineering, spends his days tinkering with a robot named Hexable.

Palmer credits the Terminator franchise for sparking his interest in robotics. 

However, unlike the robots depicted in the films, he wanted to make robots that will better society. 

“Imagine if we could build something like a squirrel. It could run into burning buildings to look for survivors,” he said. “It could swim underwater too look for people who’ve fallen into a patch of ice … I’m interested in pursuing that multimodal ability.” 

Palmer’s recent findings in controlling legged locomotion were published in the July 2014 issue of Autonomous Robots. Palmer’s paper stemmed from experimenting with Hexable, a six-legged robot.

John Rippetoe, a graduate student in computer engineering, works with Palmer and helps to write algorithms for the robots movements.

Rippetoe said the biomorphic machine took nearly four years and $3,500 to build and has the ability to advance space exploration. 

“All the rovers we have on Mars are wheeled systems, so they have to carefully choose their paths, because they can’t get over big rocks. This happened with the Curiosity rover: it got holes in its wheels,” he said. “But if (NASA) had a legged system, they wouldn’t have to worry about the terrain.”

Creating biomorphic technology, Palmer said, is often an underestimated and undervalued endeavor.

“These robotics systems become embodiments of those mathematical equations, but sometimes people just see them as toys,” he said. “The algorithms and mechanics that go on behind the scenes make these really strong research tools.”

While in college as an engineering student, Palmer said he began to think about making something that synthesized nature with a biomorphic technology. 

In nature, legs accomplish locomotion. They’re capable of walking, running, jumping, climbing and swimming. 

“If we could build a legged system to replicate nature, it would be laughable to think about any other technology,” he said. “Especially wheeled systems  that could compete with that.”

Military use and search-and-rescue operations are also future applications, Rippetoe said.

However, the idea of getting biomorphic robots on the surface of Mars is something that Palmer doesn’t see happening for another decade or so.

But, he said, there are short-term goals, such as autonomously walking up stairs.

“That would provide an avenue for these systems to be used in the house,” he said. “You could follow an elderly person around the home to make sure they haven’t fallen, or to make sure they’ve taken their medicine.” 

Ultimately, Palmer said he wants to make tools that people can use to their benefit.

“As engineers and researchers, our job is to keep pushing the technology and making it better,” he said. “My goal is to provide the world with this really great legged system that lets people’s creativity dictate what the usage is.”  

Palmer and his research team are continuing to gather data from the Hexable robot in the hopes of publishing their findings for other science journals.