Researchers from Texas A&M (Texas A&M) University, College Station; Rice University (Rice), Houston, Texas; and Halmstad University, Sweden are collaborating to develop design software that can accurately predict the physical behavior of robots prior to prototyping, as well as expand a previously developed programming language. The work has implications for the design of prosthetic and rehabilitative devices.
“One of our goals is to find a way to do virtual testing so that key flaws can be found on a computer before a prototype is ever built,” said Walid Taha, PhD, adjunct professor of computer science at Rice and professor of computer science at Halmstad University.
Taha is principal investigator at Rice and Halmstad University on a new collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The lead investigator at Texas A&M is Aaron Ames, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering with a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Taha said that robots are a study in contrasts. They can perform superhuman feats but get tripped up by toddler-level tasks. They’re digitally programmable, but intricacies of their physical behavior go far beyond the reach of computer simulations.
Modeling and simulation of robotics is not a new idea, but the researchers are taking a new approach. They are looking to develop a holistic system that robotics designers can use from start to finish. Currently, designers might use four or more different pieces of software at various points in the design and testing of a new robot. Lack of compatibility from one piece of software to the next is one problem, but an even larger problem can arise when entire concepts are missing or treated wholly different.
To address this, the team includes Rice programming language expert Corky Cartwright, PhD, professor of computer science. Taha and Cartwright began developing a new programming language called Acumen under an earlier NSF grant. They’ll continue to develop and expand the language under this new research program.
This new programming language will be applied in the context of the project’s two hands-on robotics laboratories -Mechatronics and Haptics Interface (MAHI) lab at Rice and Ames’ A&M Bipedal Experimental Robotics (AMBER) lab at Texas A&M-to test the language and make sure it is up to the task of day-to-day robotic design. Marcia O’Malley,PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Rice, MAHI lab director, and co-principal investigator on the new project, will create upper-body prosthetic and rehabilitation devices through this framework, and Ames will focus on lower-body robotic devices, developing two-legged walking robots and lower-limb robotic assistive devices.
“One area that stands to significantly benefit from these innovations is the design of next-generation prosthetics,” Ames said. “The MAHI lab at Rice is already doing work on upper-body prosthetics, and the AMBER lab is working on prosthetics for the lower body. With improved modeling and simulation tools we hope to dramatically accelerate innovation in this area.”