THURSDAY: A Robot By Any Other Name — Robo-Ostrich or FastRunner?

9 January 2014

You’re a defense contractor working for DARPA.  Instead of being asked to develop a flying robotic drone, you are contracted to design and build a robot that runs fast and can walk through rough terrain.

So, you design your robot to imitate . . . a bird?  Yes, a bird.  The world’s fastest running animal is a bird.  A flightless bird.   The ostrich.  In fact, the ostrich can run so fast, it’s probably never felt the need to fly.

DARPA has funded the joint effort of MIT and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in a project to develop a robot that walks and runs.  Past DARPA-funded projects have resulted in the quadrupedal robots, BigDog, Robo-Cheetah and the Wildcat.  But the end result of this latest effort will be the first robotic biped in the DARPA arsenal.

Robo-Ostrich is designed not just to walk, but to run and run fast.  Although the first full prototype has yet to be designed, the working computer simulation has legs and is hitting speeds of 27 mph.  Impressive considering this is about the speed of the fastest human runner – in a hundred yard dash.  But this robot could sustain that speed indefinitely.

This ‘robot ostrich’ probably will outrun you

The designers, however, aren’t satisfied with a mere 27 mph and are hoping to, eventually, develop a ‘bot that will reach a speed of 50 mph.  And the 50 mph mark would be another milestone on two counts.  First, real ostriches clock no higher than about 43 mph. And, second, real ostriches are the fastest land animals on earth.  So, the 50 mph Robo-Ostrich would not only beat the real bird, but would also beat every other land-based animal on the planet.

Although this ‘bot is formally named “FastRunner,” it has come to be known, informally, as Robo-Ostrich.  Why?  Because the only way to develop a robot that could run as fast as an ostrich was to build its legs to as closely imitate the legs of a real ostrich as possible.  By the way, this is called biomimicry – designing a technology to imitate nature in order to solve a complex human problem.

This Is What DARPA’s Robot Ostrich Will Look Like

Indeed, everyone is so excited about the Robo-Ostrich’s performance that it’s easy to forget that this robot doesn’t really exist.  Right now, the ‘bot is a computer simulation, which is only about 40% complete.

However, this isn’t the “damper” it once was because modern computer simulations are remarkably good.  In fact, modern computer simulations are so good that they quite precisely predict the performance of the real things they simulate.  So, if you can “get it right” on the computer, you can break out your hammer and wrench (figuratively speaking) and start building.  But the building phase for Robo-Ostrich is still “a ways off.”

The development of Robo-Ostrich is particularly significant because this robot’s working legs will incorporate advanced technologies to maintain the robot’s balance.  In the past, designers attempted to build complex systems into robotic legs that would monitor and respond to every variation in movement on every type of terrain.  This required large, on-board computers, complex programs, and equally complex mechanics to control every aspect of simulated walking and running.

However, a new non-linear approach is being used in the development of Robo-Ostrich.  Although complicated to develop, the new system will be of a much simpler design.

To oversimplify, imagine your automobile with computers in each wheel monitoring every bump and, then, commanding the suspension system to precisely respond in order to compensate for each disruption.  Readers familiar with automotive suspension will furrow their brow and ask, “Why?”  For almost a century, automobiles have used a spring that flexes when the tire rolls over that speed bump (for example) and, then, returns the chassis to its original position – no computers required.

Very, very roughly, a similar set of principles are being used to develop the mechanics of Robo-Ostrich’s legs.  Though much more complex than an automobile suspension system, the goal is a relatively simple, self regulating balance mechanism that allows the ‘bot to maintain its balance as it walks over uneven surfaces.

The real ostrich can grow to a height in excess of 9 feet with a weight as high as 250 pounds.  In other words, you wouldn’t want to meet the real bird — in a bad mood — in an ally — at night.

Robo-Ostrich, however, will only measure about half the height and weight of the real bird.  This relatively “petite” size and weight produce an intended advantage. The lighter weight makes the robot faster and lowers its power requirements extending its range.

The two legged design has distinct advantages over the past quadrupedal models.  Not only is a two-legged robot lighter, but its movements are more flexible allowing it to, among other things, “get through narrower spaces” and maneuver more easily around obstacles.  With such a flexible build, this robot, like other “be-footed” robots, is designed to negotiate rough terrain that would defy a wheeled-vehicle like a jeep.  Even on irregular surfaces, the finished ‘bot is expected to run (or walk) at a speed of 10 mph.

Although still in the design phase, everything about the development of Robo-Ostrich seems to be going great.

Everything except its formal name: “FastRunner”

— The United States has the most advanced military technology of any other nation on Earth.

— It also has the coolest military robots.

— But it gives those cool robots the lamest names — lamer than those of the robots of any other nation on Earth.

As I’ve warned in the past, the IRNG – “Imaginative Robot Name Gap” is widening.  And it’s growing even wider with the name “FastRunner”  How long did it take to think up the name, “FastRunner?”  About 20 seconds?  Even the computer simulation of this robot is incredibly cool.  Why saddle this ‘bot with the name “FastRunner?”  (yawn)

What should it be called?  Well . . . what is everybody (but the contractors and DARPA) calling it?  “Robo-Ostrich?” (hint, hint!)

I know that, in advertising, you’re supposed to name your business after your product or service so that potential customers can find you.  In publishing, you are supposed to title articles and books to clearly describe what the article or book is about so that interested readers can find it.  But these rules don’t apply to military contractors developing robots for DARPA.

Military contractors!  You don’t have to give your robots flat, plain descriptive names for the benefit of your customers because you have only one customer: DARPA.  Not only does DARPA know what you’re doing and where you’re doing it but, last year, we found out that DARPA knows what all of us are doing and where all of us are doing it – all the time!

Trust me.  If you name your robotic prototype “Robo-Ostrich,” DARPA won’t become confused about what you’re doing and forget to send the monthly checks.

A word to the U.S. military: The military of all nations have ancient and colorful histories.  Military regiments have long traditions, symbols, and (really cool) animal “mascots.”  But in the last several decades, the U.S. military has developed a drab image.

Military uniforms used to come in interesting colors.  Now, uniforms are, for most part, olive.  Olive isn’t exactly a flashy color.  To make things worse, what shade of olive does the military favor?  Drab.  That’s the color’s name.  “Olive-drab.”  When the military wears uniforms with a pattern, what’s the pattern? Camouflage.  No wonder they blend into the scenery!

The U.S. military spends a lot of money advertising for new recruits.  This advertising tries to make the military look interesting.  It already is!  But our military does everything it can to hide it!  Let’s stop this trend toward the boring and turn things around.

A good place to start would be with serious improvement in robot names.  No more robo- “mules” and “jellyfish.”  We need robot “warhorses” and “devilfish!”

And let’s head off a future issue at the pass.

After the successful development of Robo-Ostrich, another smaller model will likely follow.  The military contractor will want to name this new, smaller ‘bot “SmallerFastRunner.”

But they must resist the temptation to do so.

The proper name is “roadrunner.”  Yes, “Robo-Roadrunner.”  Again, please do not name this smaller ‘bot “SmallerFastRunner.”  As a nation, we can’t afford to let the “Imaginative Robot Name Gap” widen any more.

By the way, Konstantin Ivanov, a team of young Russian technologists, have just built an ostrich robot.  Competition?  Hardly.  Their robot is made out of wood.  Not even plywood!  It’s looks like its made out of pressboard.  It walks using a technology from the 1970’s.

An animatronic device only imitates the movements of an animal.  To earn the name “robot,” a machine must “do work.”  The Russian ostrich robot barely qualifies by carrying human passengers on its back.  It’s equipped with a saddle.

This Russian effort is a Grand Canyon-sized technical shortfall from our Robo-Ostrich.   But it has two things going for it that Robo-Ostrich doesn’t.  First, it’s cheaper — selling for only about $1,500.  And, second, is its name.  The creators easily came up with the name “Jurassic Ostrich Robot.”

A bit more interesting than “FastRunner” isn’t it?  I particularly like the “Jurassic.”  Birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs and, if you ever get close to an ostrich, look at its legs.  At a height on 9 feet, with those legs, you feel like you’re standing next to a saurian.  It sends a shiver down your spine.  And that’s just what our military robot names should do!

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