Athlete Robot set to take on Usain Bolt
Niiyama wants a robot with the vigor and agility of a human sprinter.
To do that, he's building a legged bot that mimics our musculoskeletal system.
He calls his robot Athlete. Each leg has seven sets of artificial muscles. The sets, each with one to six pneumatic actuators, correspond to muscles in the human body -- gluteus maximus, adductor, hamstring, and so forth [see diagram below].
To simplify things a bit, the robot uses prosthetic blades, of the type that double amputees use to run.
And to add a human touch, Niiyama makes the robot wear a pair of black shorts.
Human runners with prosthetic feet, like South African paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius, nicknamed the "Blade Runner," "give me great inspiration," Niiyama tells me.
The robot has touch sensors on each foot and an inertial measurement unit on the torso for detecting the body's orientation.
Niiyama developed the robot as a PhD candidate at the Department of Mechano-Informatics of the University of Tokyo with colleagues Satoshi Nishikawa and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
They presented their project at the IEEE Humanoids 2010 conference in Nashville, Tenn., last week.
The researchers are now teaching Athlete to run. They programmed the robot to activate its artificial muscles with the same timing and pattern of a person's muscles during running.
Niiyama, who has since become a post-doc at MIT's Robot Locomotion Group in Cambridge, Mass., says they're trying to better understand how we control our muscles during a challenging task like running.