In the pages of HEXAPOLIS, one often comes across the name EPFL. Situated in Switzerland, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is a world-renowned research institution pioneering in the fields of science and technology. From self-repairing electrical circuits to nanosized motion sensors that could detect extra-terrestrial life, the researchers at EPFL have been the front-runners in the scientific community for quite some time now. Currently, a team, led by Auke Jan Ijspeert, is developing Pleurobot, a versatile bio-inspired swimming robot that resembles a salamander.
The project is part of a collaboration between the Biorobotics Laboratory (also called BioRob) at EPFL and NCCR Robotics. Based on the principles of Biomimetics, the scientists are trying to create a walking robot that is capable of exhibiting a variety of lifelike motions. From navigating uneven terrain to swimming underwater, the Pleurobot’s highly-specialized design enables it to closely emulate the movements of a salamander. Thanks to the latest developments in cineradiography, the researchers have managed to tape three-dimensional videos of Pleurodeles waltl, swimming and walking. EPFL’s official website reports:
Tracking up to 64 points on the animal’s skeleton we were able to record three-dimensional movements of bones in great detail. Using optimization on all the recorded postures for the three gaits we deduced the number and position of active and passive joints needed for the robot to reproduce the animal movements in reasonable accuracy in three-dimensions.
The Pleurobot’s body features strategically-located active joints that exhibit intuitive torque-based movements. The design includes specially-engineered spinal cord neural circuits (known as Central Pattern Generators). The application of specific neural patterns causes the virtual muscles to reproduce actual motions of a salamander, with accuracy. The robot’s low centre of gravity and flexible, segmented limbs add stability, such that it can easily walk on uneven ground without losing balance. Donning a waterproof suit will also allow the robot to swim underwater. Talking about its possible applications, the researchers said that the Pleurobot will prove to be useful for neuroscientists, palaeontologists as well as roboticists. They said:
Our main goal is to further understand the way that the nervous system coordinates movement in vertebrates. Pleurobot’s design, with 27 degrees of freedom, allows us to test more advanced mathematical models of the locomotor nervous system towards richer motor skills. Apart from neuroscience, Pleurobot finds interesting applications in robotics for search and rescue as well as paleontology. [It’s] features may one day enable Pleurobot to help in search and rescue operations.
The Pleurobot has been displayed at the NCCR site in Lausanne.