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Robot Unravels the Mystery of Walking 134

manchineel writes with a link to a BBC article on the lessons learned from a project in locomotive robotics. 'Runbot', as it is known, is the result of a modern technology combined with a 1930s physiology study into human locomotion. The study found that walking is largely an automatic process; we only engage our brains when we have to navigate around an obstacle or deal with rough terrain. "The basic walking steps of Runbot, which has been built by scientists co-operating across Europe, are controlled by reflex information received by peripheral sensors on the joints and feet of the robot, as well as an accelerometer which monitors the pitch of the machine. These sensors pass data on to local neural loops - the equivalent of local circuits - which analyse the information and make adjustments to the gait of the robot in real time."
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Robot Unravels the Mystery of Walking

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  • by SnowZero ( 92219 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @05:38PM (#19843183)
    If there's something the world probably didn't need, it's another planar walker []. Of course, the researchers are probably quite honest about the limitations when applying this to full 3d walking, but all that is lost in the translation to an article and then a slashdot blurb.
  • by sokoban ( 142301 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @06:07PM (#19843473) Homepage
    I remember from my animal physiology classes seeing experiments about how cats walk. Apparently quite a few of the nerves which control the muscles used for walking can be severed prior to the dorsal root ganglion, and when placed on a treadmill the cats will still walk just fine even though there is no signal going from the brain to the muscles themselves.
  • by Coward Anonymous ( 110649 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @06:18PM (#19843571)
    Ants have a fully autonomous walking sub-system. Here is how you find out:
    1. Arm yourself with a box cutter, straight razor, razor blade or scalpel
    2. Capture your favorite back yard ant.
    3. Cut off the ant's head. Be careful not to hurt anything else, don't smash any legs and don't crush any other body parts. If you don't get it right with the first try, try again on your next favorite ant.
    4. Discard the head as neither you nor the ant can use it anymore.
    5. Let go of the rest of the ant

    The ant should now right itself and stand as if awaiting movement instructions.
    Some fun experiments:
    1. Blow gently on the ant. It should sway in the breeze but generally remain upright.
    2. Flick (or blow harder on) the ant without smashing it so that it tumbles some distance. It will right itself and patiently await further instructions.
    3. Place the ant on a piece of paper, wait for it to right itself and then flip the paper over. The ant should stay attached to the paper.

    Ants are truly miniature engineering marvels.
  • by ShaggyIan ( 1065010 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @06:20PM (#19843581)
    It gets even creepier when you realize how much of your body isn't human, but symbiotic bacteria and such.

    For reference []
  • by Sciros ( 986030 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @06:21PM (#19843589) Journal
    3 leg lengths per second is just short of the speed of the "fastest walking human"?? Somehow I doubt that. Racewalking is an Olympic even, even, and I know that some folks can do like a 6-min mile walking. Assuming a leg length is a yard, that robot would take closer to 10 minutes to walk a mile. So... it's kind of a dubious claim.
  • Almost got it.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Erythros ( 140001 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @07:10PM (#19843993)
    The feedback system is certainly a step in the right direction as well as using the idea of the "falling forward" concept of walking. For the other posters who stated it "walked funny" you didn't notice that the ankles of the Runbot are locked in position and it merely rolls on its "foot" until the next step. You try walking with your ankles in a fixed position and we will see if you don't look funny doing so. If the feedback system can be extended to small motors in the ankles I think the appearance of the Runbot walking would be a lot more realistic, and therefor a lot more acceptable to the anal, obcessive-compulsive Slashdot community.
  • Re:hmm (Score:3, Interesting)

    by windex82 ( 696915 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @07:34PM (#19844159) Homepage
    I've heard that since humans are one of the few mammals that walk solely on our hind legs and lack of any sort of balancing appendage walking is more of a series of controlled falls. I believe it was from a show on the new National Geographic HD channel. It tested the force that several martial arts strike at. It was Mythbusters style and intended to test lore of old martial arts movies. I'm not sure how valid any of it was though.

      It would be interesting to see if people with a higher level of balance could do more while walking than people who were more clumsy.
  • by dancpsu ( 822623 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @07:58PM (#19844371) Journal
    You might want to look at passive dynamic walking [] to see something that walks a little less like a bird on speed. I don't think these researchers are completely out of the "must be in total control of every slight movement" mode.
  • Re:Obvious? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by KillzoneNET ( 958068 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @08:34PM (#19844587)
    Here's a quick way of knowing whether or not walking is a conscious or not.

    When walking down a path or on a sidewalk, have you ever found that the ground below your feet isn't there and you find yourself falling a bit in a panic-state (ie - adrenaline rush and fear)? This usually happens when you walk past a down step or gradient that you did not foresee.

    You never think about it but your body is just reacting to the change and trying frantically to find a solid ground. Its not a truly conscious behavior until your body immediately tells your senses a semi-false signal that your falling.

    Walking therefore is mostly an unconscious and reactive action that is learned from understanding the information that your body gives while performing the act.
  • Muscle Memory (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Mal-2 ( 675116 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @09:21PM (#19844835) Homepage Journal
    Any act you repeat frequently enough becomes partially hardwired into the nervous system, and we call it "muscle memory" (though of course it is neurons that retain the memories). If you have ever learned to play an instrument beyond the beginner level, you will know that you cannot possibly process everything that needs to be done, in real time, in the conscious mind. At some level, you have to just put it on autopilot. You need the conscious mind to read the chart or pick out the harmonies, but you expect that the skills necessary to translate your ideas into sound will just be there. If you're thinking "how do I play that note", it's already gone by.

    If you want to play an instrument and sing at the same time, or play two independent instruments at once (piano and especially organ are close enough to qualify, as is something like a Chapman Stick or Megatar), you have to rely on muscle memory that much more, as you now have twice as much to deal with. Doing all that and singing at the same time is more difficult still, and there are plenty of great musicians who never learn this particular stunt. The only way I can play and sing at the same time is to drill one or the other (usually the instrument) until I can do it by habit alone, then layer the other one over it and hope it holds together. Fortunately, woodwind players are not frequently asked to sing while playing, or to play two instruments at once, and if I do have to sing while playing, it's not really an independent act but part of coaxing a particular sound from the instrument.

    As is the case with walking, the trick is to practice (a lot) and to accept that you will fall down (a lot) until you get the hang of it. Most of us just don't remember how hard we had to work to learn to walk. Some have to re-learn and could tell you how tough it is, and others still bear the scars of learning in infancy -- I have a scar in one eyebrow from falling into the edge of a table while still learning to walk (and a matching one in the other eyebrow, from learning to fight, but that is another story).

  • by armareum ( 925270 ) on Thursday July 12, 2007 @10:57PM (#19845301)
    Actually, there *are* two different methods to walking. One is the referred to 'falling' method where we lean forward and place a foot out to catch ourselves. The other is where we extend our leg out and then transfer the weight afterwards.

    You can tell if you are doing the former if you trip when your foot catches something. The latter method is recommended for use by aged people due to the decrease in response time and hence increase risk of falling (falling having a higher risk of injury in the elderly due to weaker bones)
  • Re:Crawl before walk (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 13, 2007 @10:18AM (#19848367)
    This was already achieved MONTHS ago, and in much more impressive fashion, by
    Typical of the BBC to report THIS robot as 'news' because they obviously know nothing about the Anybots robots... []

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling