Robomechanics: Aaron Johnson’s robotic zoo


September 6, 2016

Imagine a diverse zoo of robots—some legged, some with wheels or treads. These robots can do flips, jump over obstacles, climb rocky terrain, and roll through sand with ease. This is the vision of new Assistant Professor ofMechanical Engineering Aaron Johnson, who studies the interactions between robots and their environments—environments ranging from your kitchen table to the Mojave Desert.

“I look at the ways in which the things we can control, like a robot’s actuators and sensors, interact with the uncontrolled environment,” says Johnson. “I want to make robots that can intelligently interact with the world.”

Johnson, who received his electrical and computer engineering undergraduate degree and did his postdoctoral research in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, has worked on parkour robots, climbing snake robots, and home assistance robots alike. By looking at how each type of robot moves through the world and interacts with the terrain and objects that surround it, Johnson can then build new robots that can better, and more reliably, navigate and manipulate their environments.

In the fall, Johnson will be teaching a graduate-level course in Engineering Optimization and starting up a new research facility, which he plans to name the Robomechanics Lab.

“There’s a large field called biomechanics that studies how animals move, and the mechanics of that movement through muscles and bones,” Johnson explains. “The Robomechanics Lab will draw inspiration from the tools and methods of biomechanics, but applied to artificial systems.”

The Robomechanics Lab will look at how robots can manipulate their terrain—in other words, how we can create robots that can dig in the sand and push rocks around, so that they can reach more terrain and shape the terrain in beneficial ways. Much of what Johnson will be researching in his lab will have to do with how non-legged robots—wheeled, treaded, or otherwise—can travel through difficult terrain equally well as, or even better than, robots with legs. 

“A lot of us have this feeling that legs are important and great, but there have been very few cases of a legged robot doing something that a wheeled or tracked robot couldn’t. Trying to understand what you can do with wheels, and what you really need legs for, will be a big part of the long-term goal of the lab,” says Johnson.

Watch RHex, the parkour robot subject of Johnson’s Ph.D. research, navigate difficult terrain and leap over obstacles:

Watch HERB, Carnegie Mellon’s personal assistance robot, learn to push a box to a specific location on a table:

Watch one of Carnegie Mellon’s modular snake robots climb an undergraduate Johnson’s leg:

Story originally published here.