New GRASP Project Aims to Leverage ‘Embodied Intelligence’ via a Robotic Squirrel

Published by Penn Engineering 

Author: Evan Lerner

It takes about a year before human infants master their own motor skills well enough to walk. While putting one foot in front of the other seems natural, remaining upright requires subtle shifts of balance throughout the body. Uneven terrain presents an additional challenge, but it’s one that children quickly overcome without much in the way of formal training or guidance. And once they’re up and running, there is no end to the novelty of jumping, skipping and climbing skills that kids discover and invent.
 
Legged robots don’t have it so easy. Only the most advanced can walk with a smooth, natural gait, and even those can be stymied by a small pile of rubble or sand. They have no capacity for inventing novel behavior at all: each new gait or maneuver must be programmed from scratch. And both humans and robots are put to shame by the average cat, squirrel or gecko, all of which can quickly adapt complex bodily features with manipulations to traverse almost any obstacle, whether familiar or completely novel.
 
A team of researchers, led from Penn Engineering’s GRASP Lab, now aims to imbue robots with this kind of “embodied intelligence,” developing bio-inspired designs that use limbs as sensors as well as actuators and learn new forms of locomotion based on interactions with their environment. Their five-year goal: a parkouring mechanical “squirrel” that will serve as a new paradigm for robot design and behavior.
 
The project is supported by the Army Research Office through the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, or MURI, Program funded by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. It is being led by Daniel E. Koditschek, Alfred Fitler Moore Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering and interim director of Penn Engineering’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception, or GRASP, Lab.
 
He will collaborate with Shu Yang, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, as well as Yuliy Baryshnikov of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Noah J. Cowan and James J. Knierim of Johns Hopkins University, and Robert J. Full and Lucia F. Jacobs of the University of California at Berkeley.
 
Animals’ bodies are exquisitely adapted to their habitats. Evolutionary pressure has resulted in bones, muscles and skin that automatically “solve” physical problems of force, sensation and energetics, allowing their brains to handle more abstract problems of placement, motivation, strategy and novelty.
 
“Animals are constantly performing both mechanical and mental processing of the information and energy flows at work in their environment,” Koditschek says. “‘Embodied intelligence refers to the integrated physical problem-solving and innovative capabilities that emerge from this interplay.”