In an effort to understand how animals move elegantly and in turn provide robots with the same ability, researchers at the University of Bielefeld's Center of Excellence 'Cognitive Interaction Technology' (CITEC) have developed the hexapod walking robot called HECTOR (Hexapod Cognitive autonomously Operating Robot). Designed within CITEC's multi-disciplinary Mulero project, the robot possesses the scaled up morphology of a stick insect and will be used as a test bed in various departments and projects at the University.
In each of the 18 joints of its six legs and the two joints linking the its three body segments, HECTOR uses a new type of bioinspired, self-contained, elastic joint drive that its developers say works as smoothly as muscles. Each of the drives is equipped with sensors, complete control electronics, its own processor and a sensorized elastic coupling that allows the 18 leg joints to be controlled using biologically inspired control algorithms. These give HECTOR the ability to react by yielding during collisions or interactions with people.
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As well as its insect-like appearance, HECTOR also possesses a light, yet durable exoskeleton made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) which makes up only around 13 percent of the robot's body weight, but allows it to carry loads many times that – with a total weight of 12 kg (26.45 lb), the one-meter (3.28 ft) long robot can carry a 30 kg (66 lb) load with less than one millimeter (0.04 in) of deformation.
Intended to serve as a test bed for various departments and projects, the robot features a body design that follows an exchangeable lid concept that allows special sensor equipment to be switched for different studies. For example, an omnidirectional camera for near- and long-range sensing can be easily switched for a tactile antenna for exploring its immediate surroundings.
HECTOR's control program works on the same distributed intelligence principle found in insect brains, while a specially developed interface and bus concept makes it easy to link sensory information processing to the robot's movement control system.
Its creators say that they also plan to give HECTOR the ability to learn and plan ahead, which will enable it to make its way through unfamiliar territory and carry out exploration tasks autonomously.
With relatively simple cognitive processes and a variety of light, yet tough body types that have been honed by evolution to suit just about any condition found on Earth, insects are probably the most common source of inspiration for robotics engineers after human beings.
HECTOR joins a growing list of insect-inspired robots that includes the likes of SRI's wall climbing robots and the EPFL's grasshopper-inspired jumping robot. With insects already by far the most numerous type of animal on the face of the planet, they could also be staking an early claim for the most numerous form of robot.
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CITEC's video overview of HECTOR: