New this season at Virginia Tech football games: the machines we all fear will one day take over the world.
Hokies cheerleaders once did a push-up for each point scored by the home team. This season, they’ve been replaced by a dog-like robot meant to show off the university’s top-notch engineering program. It’s a little creepy, a little cool and definitely unique.
The quadrupedal machine, made by Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics, gets carried into the end zone after each score on a wooden platform, and with a PhD student manning the controls nearby, twitches its animatronic legs in what can charitably be described as a push-up. (To be fair, the Hokies this season can charitably be described as a football team.)
So what exactly is that thing?
“We would like to make robots that can walk or run like animals or like humans,” said Kaveh Akbari Hamed, a Virginia Tech assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
Uh, what’s that now?
“We see the greatest dexterity in animals,” he said. “More than half of the earth’s landscape is unreachable to wheeled robots or wheeled cars. But you see in reality that four-legged locomotion can go anywhere. There is biology-inspired motivation here. We want to have robots that at least look like, from the hardware point of view, animals. We hope to get the same mobility and dexterity.”
Hamed and a team of student researchers study the mathematical algorithms that provide these four-legged robots more balance and the ability to make complicated maneuvers. Companies like Ghost Robotics send them robots to test those algorithms. The goal is for the robots to master different gaits, Hamed said, like a dog’s ambling trot or a cheetah’s sprint.
You know those terrifying videos of robots — sometimes made by other companies — doing gymnastics or jumping over boxes or otherwise practicing for world domination? That’s what Hamed and his students work on, as well.
But, he said, there are good reasons for creating robots that look and move so much like humans and animals.
“We are living in our houses, and these houses, these factories, these offices are made for us, bipedal walkers,” he said. “If these robots are supposed to help us, it makes sense that these robots have legs like us to step over stairs, to step over gaps, to live in the environments we are living in.”
These robots could be used in disaster-response scenarios, he said, or in industrial accidents. They could also act as assistants, like service animals. The first step toward realizing those goals is to enable the machines to master moving through rough terrain, then to give them autonomous capability so they can navigate that terrain on their own.
In other words, Kaveh said, people need to recognize these robots as positive things, creations that can and will help them one day. That’s why he’s so pleased when he sees the touchdown robot on the field celebrating Virginia Tech scores.
“My goal is for us to one day have these robots in society assisting people,” he said. “When I see that people like it — it’s a friendly creature for society, and it is going to assist people, not replace anyone — it is a very nice moment. If society likes these kind of things, let’s work harder and make it better and better.”