The machine moves uncannily through the grass. Its articulated limbs fling wooden bones forward, looking less like a manufactured object and more like a petrified nightmare necromanced into being. As it shambles, it is soon joined by others, whose limbs vary in specifics but are identical in function.
This skeletal construct is possible because engineers have developed “muscles” to strap to reclaimed wooden scraps. It’s a novel avenue for robotics, and worth consideration both in terms of process and actual utility.
Created by researchers at the University of Tokyo’s Information Somatics Laboratory, the stick-walking (walking stick?) robot was demonstrated at a December 2018 workshop. It is as much engineering as art. Sticks are found, fitted with robotic articulation, and then modeled in a virtual environment. In the simulation, algorithms learn how to manipulate the robot’s muscles and limbs to create motion, iterating walking before trying it out in the real world. Once the algorithm has mastered the task, the robot is tested in real life, flailing along. The design works with multiple configurations of irregular body parts, so long as they are roughly similar to how the robot was trained.
Robotics don’t have to be this weird, but they should be more often. Exploring novel shapes can lead researchers, designers and military planners to stumble upon new form factors that might prove valuable. While the stick-walkers were fabricated in a lab, it’s possible that such iteration could take place with a minimum of infrastructure downrange, especially with commercial parts and 3D printers available.
Besides research, there might be genuine military utility in a pocketable set of robot parts that can be affixed to ephemera found in the field. While the demonstration robots are tethered, if they could carry an on-board power supply (perhaps a battery as a central limb), the robots could shamble through underbrush, attracting no more attention on the edge of cover than a field mouse. With audio or visual sensors built into the robotic limb parts, a soldier or marine could find robot limbs from local flora, and then have sensors crawl into discrete positions, watching or listening for hostile action. With expendable limbs drawn from branches, a robot like this could walk through a minefield, potentially detonating explosives in advance of human passage.
The design constraints of accommodating humans are no longer required for robotics, and can be cast off when useful. It’s possible that the stick-walking robot will remain a novelty, but the possibilities presented by the form are tantalizing enough to warrant some consideration.
Watch the walkers in action below:
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.