The Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Ian Walker awarded NASA grant to research and develop "robot ropes"

Ian WalkerECE Professor Ian Walker has received a $545,000, five-year grant from NASA’s National Robotics Initiative to conduct fundamental research into radically new types of very long, thin, continuous-backbone “continuum” robots. The key advance will be in the length of the robots relative to their diameter, enabling Dr. Walker’s new robots to operate as “robot ropes,” requiring completely new advances in both design and operation.

Continuum robots are naturally compliant, enabling close interaction and collaboration with people. In comparison to traditional robots based on rigid links, contact between the environment – and in particular humans – and continuum robots is inherently “soft”. The underlying design of continuum robots promotes their safe adaptation to and compliance with the environment. Dr. Walker and his team strongly exploit this capability in this project, and explore the potential for completely new types of collaborative human-robot manipulation, as well as non-collocated human-supervised operations for exploration, using the new thin robots.

Dr. Walker expects the project to expand the boundaries of robotics by developing robots with unique abilities, designed to penetrate environments currently inaccessible to robots, and emphasizes versatility, adaptability, and robustness. He hopes that the advances in using long thin continuum robots to adaptively explore very tight spaces, and to gently and collaboratively manipulate a wide range of objects, has many potential applications, ranging from household services, to health and elderly care, to urban search and rescue, counter-terrorism, disaster relief, and so on, just to name a few.

Dr. Walker's proposal was chosen from among over 600 submitted to the National Robotics Initiative. The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work beside, or cooperatively with, people. Innovative robotics research and applications emphasizing the realization of such co-robots acting in direct support of and in a symbiotic relationship with human partners is supported by multiple agencies of the federal government including the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The purpose of this program is the development of this next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.