Steve Buerger is leading a Sandia National Laboratories project to demonstrate how energy efficient biped walking robots could become. Increased efficiency could enable bots to operate for much longer periods of time without recharging batteries, an important factor in emergency situations.

Sandia powers up robot tech

Designing robots to rescue people from situations too dangerous for humans is at the heart of the latest DARPA robotics challenge. Agencies, universities and corporate teams are preparing their entries in hopes of advancing the technology – and winning the $2 million prize.

The hardware, software, sensors and human-machine control interfaces required for robots to complete a series of challenge tasks presents not just a daunting engineering problem, but a literal power struggle.

And that’s where work from Sandia National Laboratories comes in. Sandia said its energy-efficient platforms could help robots entered in the DARPA Challenge extend their battery life.

“You can have the biggest, baddest, toughest robot on the planet, but if its battery life is 10 or 20 minutes, as many are right now, that robot cannot possibly function in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake,” said project lead Steve Buerger of Sandia’s Intelligent Systems Control Department.

The Sandia Transmission Efficient Prototype Promoting Research, or STEPPR, robot is a fully functional research platform that allows developers to try different mechanisms that perform like elbows and knees to quantify how much energy is used.

Sandia officials said a second robot – named Walking Anthropomorphic Novelly Driven Efficient Robot for Emergency Response, or WANDERER – will be a better-packaged prototype.

The Open Source Robotics Foundation is developing the two robots' electronics and low-level software, and the designs will be publicly released to allow engineers and developers worldwide to take advantage of them.

Sandia’s robotic work will be demonstrated in the technology exposition section of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, scheduled for June 5-6 at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif.

FCW’s Mark Rockwell contributed to this story.

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