A West Virginia University engineer is combining the study of neuroscience and robotics to better understand the nervous system and motor output of insects to create animal-like robots for potential use in agriculture, mining and space exploration.
In order to create more mobile robots, Nicholas Szczecinski, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the Statler College, will investigate how animals, particularly stick-insects and cockroaches, measure and respond to forces acting on their legs as they walk.
“Humans and other animals are graceful and agile, in part because they are very good at regulating the amount of force exerted when performing a task,” Szczecinski said. “However, most robots deployed in the field are not as good as regulating force, and many unfortunate accidents have happened when people have been struck by robots with very high force inside factories.”
With the aid of a $630,000 award from the National Science Foundation, Szczecinski and co-principal investigator, Sasha Zill from Marshall University, will work with a six-legged robot model whose control system is based on the nervous system of an insect, enabling the researchers to integrate dynamic force sensing into the robot’s control system.
According to Szczecinski, robots with wheels aren’t going anywhere anytime soon; however, when faced with difficult terrains like those found on the moon and Mars, robots with legs would enable space agencies to scale mountains or canyon walls across the solar system. And on Earth, robots with legs would enable farmers to grow crops more densely and naturally on inclined terrains.
“With more sensitive and dynamic force sensing, robots may be better equipped to sense when they come in contact with people and limit their force output to avoid hurting people,” Szczecinski explained. “Such a capability could lead to robots that operate safely around people or even move people around, for example, in elder care.”
Szczecinski hopes that rather than replacing people from these jobs, more agile robots could supplement the workforce.
The investigators will take two approaches to detect how dynamic force sensing affects muscle control — one experimental and the other based in robotics. The experimental approach will involve inserting electrodes into the muscles of insects’ legs to measure the electrical activity of the force sensors. The second approach will incorporate dynamic load into existing robot control systems to measure the robot’s energy expenditure and agility as it walks over different terrains at different speeds.
“The end result of this research that excites me the most is to give robots a more naturalistic sense of force detection and touch,” Szczecinski said.
As part of the project, the researchers will carry out various outreach events in West Virginia schools by using Lego Mindstorm kits to expose students to the mechanics and programming behind robotics.
“We hope that our outreach workshops will teach students how to boil tasks down into a set of logical instructions, which underlies all of robotics and automation,” Szczecinski said.