Lots of animals have inspired robot design: dogs, cats, insects and even humans. It was only a matter of time before engineers started thinking about apes.

At the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), a group of roboticists built a robot that moves in the way apes and monkeys do — on all fours, with a knuckle-walking gait. It’s called the iStruct Demonstrator. (A video of the robot walking is here).

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Unlike robots that shuffle-walk with flat feet (this ASIMO), this one has a heel-toe step that’s similar to a human’s. The robot also has a spine that bends, rather than a rigid bar. Another advance is the autonomy: most walking robots need tethers to supply power, but this one has a completely self-contained battery power source, and weighs in at about 40 pounds.

Still, getting it to balance was complicated. The team built the iStruct with some 43 individual force and torque sensors and an array of accelerometers. There’s a distance sensor in the heel to anticipate when it will hit the ground, and even temperature sensors to monitor how much heat is generated by the electronics. All this to keep the robot upright and allow it to turn smoothly and go up and down hills.

The researchers didn’t say what it might be used for, but the experiments were funded by Germany’s Space Agency and it’s listed by DFKI as a space robotics project. Robots with wheels are trundling on the surface of Mars, but one with legs could get into (and out of) places those wheeled robots can’t, and the ability to balance itself means that mission control won’t have to approach every bump in the terrain as a potential mission-killer.

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The iStruct also may be a step to designing better two-legged humanoid robots, something that still proves a complicated problem to solve. While there are humanoid robots that test equipment, and those like ASIMO that walk, a robot that can keep its balance when confronted with shaky ground is still a goal for mobile robots.


Credit: DFKI / Daniel Kühn