Robots either have legs, or they run on something like treads or wheels ... right? Well, not in the case of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)’s new CHIMP robot. The humanoid ‘bot does have arms and legs, allowing it to stand and carry out tasks on a human scale. When it’s time to move, however, it can hunker down on all fours and roll along on rubberized treads built into its feet and forearms – not unlike a slower, all-terrain form of buggy rollin'.

CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) is Carnegie Mellon’s entry in the upcoming DARPA Robotics Challenge, in which the various teams’ robots will ultimately have to successfully complete a sort of obstacle course that requires them to do things like driving a car, traveling through rubble, opening doors, climbing ladders, and manipulating tools. The competition begins later this year, and will proceed through to the end of 2014.

While CHIMP’s design does keep it naturally balanced in a standing position, why not just have it walk like C-3PO? For one thing, bipedal walking (or even dynamically-balanced standing) requires a lot of mechanical complexity, computational requirements, and energy consumption. It’s also not a particularly stable a way of traversing uneven terrain, as compared to CHIMP’s approach of lowering its center of gravity then rolling along like a tank.

That said, CHIMP can also move while standing, using only the treads on its feet. Among other things, this will allow it to move while grasping objects with its three-fingered manipulators (aka “hands”).

During the competition, CHIMP will operate via supervised autonomy. This means that a human operator will remotely-control the big things, such as the path taken by the robot, but CHIMP’s own onboard systems will handle functions such as collision avoidance and maintaining stability. Those latter functions will be made possible using a variety of onboard sensors that create a texture-mapped 3D model of the robot’s surroundings.

That same model is used by the operator to visualize CHIMP’s location and orientation. Using an interface consisting of a big-screen monitor, keyboard and mouse, the operator can then decide how to proceed within the various challenges. Making things considerably easier for them, tasks such as tool-grasping and steering-wheel-turning will also be pre-programmed into the robot. This will also allow CHIMP to perform such activities considerably faster.

“Humans provide high-level control, while the robot provides low-level reflexes and self-protective behaviors,” said team leader Tony Stentz. “This enables CHIMP to be highly capable without the complexity associated with a fully autonomous robot.”

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