Last year at the Stanford-Berkeley Robotics Symposium, we saw some tantalizing slides from Oussama Khatib about a humanoid robot that used trekking poles to balance itself. We were promised more details later, and the Stanford researchers delivered at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) this year, where they presented the concept of SupraPed robots.

The idea is equipping robots with a pair of special trekking poles packed with sensors that, according to the researchers, "transforms biped humanoids into tripeds or quadrupeds or more generally, SupraPeds." By using these smart poles to steady themselves, the robots would be able to navigate through "cluttered and unstructured environments such as disaster sites."

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Humans have had a lot of practice walking around on two legs. Robots have not, which isn't their fault, but at the moment, even the best robots are working up to the level of a toddler. Some of them aren't bad at flat terrain, but as we saw in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials, varied terrain is very, very difficult. It doesn't just require the physical ability to move and balance, but also the awareness to know what path to take and where feet should be placed.

As good at this as humans are, even we get into situations where our balance and movements with our legs and feet simply aren't enough. And when this happens, we scramble. If we're fancy, we might use a walking stick or hiking poles for balance assistance, and if we're not fancy, sometimes an outstretched arm is enough. Similar to the research we looked at yesterday, this is an entirely different philosophy about obstacles: instead of things to be avoided, they're things that can potentially be used to complete tasks that would otherwise be unsafe or impossible:

This is all simulation, and the programming behind it is fairly complex. The robot (when they throw a real robot into this mix) will have sophisticated 3D vision, tactile sensing, and a special set of actuated ski poles. According to the researchers, the whole platform includes:

A pair smart walking staffs, a whole-body multi-contact control and planning software system, and real-time reactive controllers that integrate both tactile and visual information. Moreover, to bypass the difficulty of programming fully autonomous robot controllers, the SupraPed platform contains a remote haptic teleoperation system which allows the operator remotely give high level command.

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An easy way to think of this, in terms of stability, is like you're taking a biped and turning it into an on-demand triped (?) or quadruped. But since you're relying on poles instead of limbs, you don't have to make any compromises when it comes to grasping and manipulation.

We're not sure when we're going to get to see a real humanoid robot using techniques like these, but there is this big competition for humanoid robots coming up next year where they'll have to traverse rough terrain. I wonder if ATLAS is allowed to use a walking stick?

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