Despite the significant progress made in the mechatronic development of humanoid and human centred robots like wearable exoskeleton augmentation systems there are still significant barriers to be overcome before these robots (structure, actuation and sensing) could match the performance of the human body and be able to provide natural, safe and comfortable physical interaction and assistance to humans. Current humanoids and wearable systems significantly lack in performance, power density, efficiency and physical robustness. To generate motions is highly inefficient and high impact interactions which are required for example during the execution of highly dynamic tasks, e.g. running or may be accidentally occurred cannot be tolerated by any existing system. Their “stiff” design and control principles impose significant limitations both in the velocities/torque profiles that can be achieved at the joint level and in the capability of these systems to absorb impacts and safely interact with humans and the environment. As a result these robots have higher energy demands, limited adaptability during physical interactions and lack the required physical resilience and strength to execute practical tasks and assist humans effectively.
The Humanoid and Human Centred Mechatronics lab is a leading research laboratory with strong expertise in mechanism design, modelling and control of new mechatronics components (actuation and sensing,) for building the next generation of advanced physical performance humanoids and human centred strength and power augmentation systems. Concerning the development of these new robot components the activity of the lab explores both mechatronic technological limits of existing design approaches (structural materials, actuation and transmission systems) combined with new design philosophies and control principles including locomotion generation, balancing regulation and teleoperation control.
Building Performing Robots
To empower the new generation of robots with the necessary adaptability, robustness and resilience to be deployed and effectively used within human workspace and be able to physically interact safely with human and the environment the key asset of the lab is the technology of soft robotics actuation. In this approach, the traditional rigid and brittle actuation is replaced by compliant structural elements and elastic actuators, to allow withstanding large force peaks, contact uncertainties and energy exchange with the environment, but also safe interaction with humans. The lab have considerable experience and expertise in developing advanced soft robotic technologies, which can be effectively exploited in the next generation of humanoids, wearable robotic systems and robot co-workers.
We investigate novel joint actuation and elastic transmission systems solutions and their associate control schemes that can demonstrate energy efficient and high peak operation using large energy storage capacity elements, efficient actuation drivers and energy recycling techniques. The developed actuators are considered for walking, hopping and in general legged robots, including full humanoids and exoskeletons. Research in the utility and control of the actuator extend also toward energy storage and recovery in high power bursts such as throwing, kicking and jumping of anthropomorphic robots. This work activity is in line with the work-plan of several EU projects (VIACTORS, SAPHARI and WALK-MAN) in which the Humanoid and Human Centred Mechatronics lab has a major role.
One of the system requirements for future mobile robots is long-term power autonomy. The lab address the need for better efficiency considering the mechanical optimization of lightweight structures, selection of kinematics, relocation and efficiency of actuators and transmission systems, including energy-storage concepts (similar to those in the actuation technologies). Our objective is to derive methodologies and demonstrate how these techniques combined with distributed physical compliance can be systematically tuned to maximize the robot efficiency. Within this process we study and develop simulation tools and precise mathematical models for soft robotics systems that guide the design process of the physical robots.
The high performance humanoid WALK-MAN (http://www.walk-man.eu/) was developed to provide a humanoid robot that is physically strong and robust to operate within unstructured human environments and execute real tasks. This activity targets to enable WALK-MAN to demonstrate new skills such as dexterous, powerful manipulation, robust balanced locomotion and physical sturdiness.
The compliant child size humanoid COMAN deigned in the Humanoid and Human Centred Mechatronics lab represents the world’s first full-body humanoid that blends joint torque sensing/control and active impedance regulation with passive compliance at the whole body level. COMAN was developed within the AMARSI EU project and serves as a state of the art experimental humanoid platform for exploring locomotion, balancing and physical interaction control.
The mechatronics development and hardware design activity of the lab is harmonized with a parallel activity on robot control with key focus on the study and implementation of locomotion and balancing control principles of humanoids and leg robots as well as on the teleoperation control of humanoids. The aim of this activity is to develop reactive and versatile leg skills to permit humanoids to walk and balance against external disturbances in unstructured terrains and environments.
Locomotion and Balancing
We study and develop locomotion and balancing skills to permit humanoids to walk and balance against external disturbances by exploiting their whole-body motion to prevent falling, or minimizing physical damage if inevitable. We target to advance from the slowly adaptive pre-planned bipedal gait generators and balancing planners towards more rapidly modulated and planning-free cyclic pattern generators combined with reflexive behaviours that will allow the robot to cope with uneven terrains and rapid start and stop gait transitions.
Whole Body Motion Regulation and Robust Physical Interaction
The objective of this activity is to exploit the whole-body loco-manipulation technology in Humanoids and move away from the traditional separate treatment of manipulation and locomotion towards a paradigm where all body parts can potentially interact with the environment and contribute to balance the robot body, as well as to produce powerful physical manipulation actions that may be needed in certain tasks.
Shared Autonomous Teleoperation
We study Humanoid teleoperation through the use of shared control between the humanoid and the human operator. We investigate Whole-body tele-operation principles of the slave humanoid system by blending the output of robust local controller at the slave side with reference inputs provided by the operators. Whole-body level, local controllers are responsible for regulating critical robotic states which are fed back to the operator through the development of wearable haptic devices based on tactile feedback and novel actuation systems to permit faster and more efficient manoeuvring of the robot under the command of the human operator.
Collaborations and Links to Other Laboratories
The Humanoid and Human Centered Mechatronics lab has strong links with several research lines inside IIT in the areas of compliant actuation systems and humanoid design (Soft Robotics for Human Cooperation and Rehabilitation Lab, Antonio Bicchi), Software development (iCub Facility, Giorgio Metta), Tele-operation/co-operation control (Human-Robot Interfaces and Physical Interaction Lab, Arash Ajoudaini), Robot Interfaces and Software(Humanoid Sensing and Perception, Lorenzo Natale), Whole body control (Dynamic interaction control, Giorgio Metta) and wearable robots (Rehab Facility, Jody Saglia). Many of our activities also involve collaborations within the frameworks of EU projects with other international labs and institutes including Centro E. Piagio at the University of Pisa(for Compliant Actuation and Humanoid Design), the University of Bielefeld and EPFL (for COMAN Developments) and DLR (for Compliant and Variables Stiffness actuation) and the University of Siena (Wearable Haptics)