New GRASP project aims to leverage ‘embodied intelligence’ via a robotic squirrel

It takes about a year before human infants master their own motor skills well enough to walk. While putting one foot in front of the other seems natural, remaining upright requires subtle shifts of balance throughout the body. Uneven terrain presents an additional challenge, but it’s one that children quickly overcome without much in the way of formal training or guidance. And once they’re up and running, there is no end to the novelty of jumping, skipping and climbing skills that kids discover and invent.

Legged robots don’t have it so easy. Only the most advanced can walk with a smooth, natural gait, and even those can be stymied by a small pile of rubble or sand. They have no capacity for inventing novel behavior at all: each new gait or maneuver must be programmed from scratch. 

A team of researchers, led from Penn Engineering’s GRASP Lab, now aims to imbue robots with this kind of “embodied intelligence,” developing bio-inspired designs that use limbs as sensors as well as actuators and learn new forms of locomotion based on interactions with their environment. Their five-year goal: a parkouring mechanical “squirrel” that will serve as a new paradigm for robot design and behavior.

The project is supported by the Army Research Office through the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, or MURI, Program funded by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. It is led by Daniel E. Koditschek, an electrical and systems engineering professor, and interim director of Penn Engineering’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception, or GRASP, Lab. He will collaborate with Shu Yang, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Read more at the Penn Engineering blog.