Forget about rescue robots or belt-driven construction equipment, Prosthesis aims to be the first step in the direction of large-scale, human-piloted robots. The philosophy behind a new, real-life mech suit can be summed up in one word: Anti-Robot. Sponsored by the Vancouver, Canada educational organization, eatART, this device changes the way we view robotics, transportation, and even industrial automation.
“It speaks to the underlying message of the project, which is a counterpoint to automation and virtualization. One of the main motivators for me to build this thing, and to build it so large, is to make a statement against the potential negative outcome of gratuitous automation and technologization of our world,” explains Jonathan Tippett, the project leader and designer.
Tippett works a day job as a senior design engineer for a biomedical device research company in Vancouver, and he credits his engineering background for his confidence in entering the world of kinetic sculpture. “The fact that I have an engineering background has permitted me to think on a much larger and more technically sophisticated scale than most artists.”
Obviously, a robotic prosthesis of this scale begs the use of high-end technology and research. He’s utilized complex engineering tools, like SolidWorks software and Lenovo hardware (both sponsors of the project), but at the core Tippett considers the Anti-Robot an art project with engineering as its medium.
“Engineering is simply a tool that I have at my disposal for expression,” he says. “This is, at its heart, an educational undertaking – basically research. I’ve sponsored several students over the last three years with this project to help teach them in a design environment that’s a little more pure than commercial environments. It’s not all about the bottom-line or mass production and cost efficiency. It allows them to kind of slowly spread their wings from the text books to the harsh world of manufacturing and commercial industrial engineering.”
A Custom Power Plant
The Anti-Robot will utilize a 23 kw/hr lithium-ion power plant to lug around the five-meter (16-foot) high, five-meter (16-foot) wide exoskeleton. When all is said and done, Tippett is hoping the Prosthesis will weigh in at less than 3,600 kg (about 8,000 lbs). “I actually had to shorten it so I could fit it on standard highway shipping dimensions,” says Tippett.
During initial testing of one of the legs (dubbed Alpha Leg), Tippett quickly squandered $400 (CA) on gasoline before the electric power pack was finished. “I was too busy innovating the suspension and controls of the leg to spend time designing a battery power plant. The combustion engine was easy, convenient. It’s a default way. It’s the lazy way. You gotta pick your battles, so you can’t do everything new right from the outset.”
Now, the test bed features a sophisticated, 13 kw/hr, 72 V lithium-ion power plant that’s integrated into the trailer. “It provides clean, silent power,” he explains. “A lot of people see solar panels on houses and electric vehicles and kind of roll their eyes and get back in their V8s. But to build machines that are exciting and shocking that run on electricity accesses a new audience. It’s just way better. It’s quiet, clean, and you can charge it anywhere.”
Controlling the Beast
The Prosthesis uses what Tippett calls “a really sophisticated balancing system.” A pilot. “It’s the world’s most sophisticated, six-dimensional, inertial receptor with closed-loop vision feedback and tactile input – the human being,” he explains. “From a technical perspective, stability is the probably the biggest single challenge. It’s easy to get power – you just do the math and buy the parts, but stability and usability are a challenge. Because this is a human-controlled machine it has to feel good, be learnable, and ergonomic.” According to Tippett, the sophisticated balancing system is the reason lot of the innovation thus far has been focused on the control system and the interface.
He describes the human pilot as the last component in creating a complex, closed-loop system, making the balance and control no more automated than a motorcycle. In a standing position, the pilot is strapped in with their legs and arms free. Using air-filled bladders for a proper fit, the exoskeleton almost becomes an extension of the pilot’s movement – arms control the outer legs, legs control the inner.
“The gate is kind of like walking on crutches or walking like a gorilla. That movement is mapped to the legs of the machine, which are all in a row. It’s kind of like two bipeds that are tied together like a 3-legged race. The reason for that is that it simplifies the gate because if you synchronize those two bipeds walking, then the lateral degrees of stability get cancelled out,” Tippett explains.
The first iteration of the control system was purely mechanical, but the team ran into issues with force and adjustability. “In the last year and a half, we have upgraded to an electromechanical valve. It’s still 100% human controlled, but there are electronics in there that are energizing the coils and stuff,” he says. “We’ve been learning hand over fist with our sponsor, HydroForce, who manufactures electromechanics, and they’ve helped us develop a nice, stable efficient system.”
Tippett explains that suspension has historically been intended for wheeled vehicles that move very quickly and go over small bumps. “The closest thing to the suspension that the Prosthesis encounters could be comparable to trophy truck racing – where you’re in a 3,000 kg machine catching air over and over.” The Anti-Robot is basically a truck that jumps every two seconds. “And, it has to land on its feet in a predictable way, controlled by a human.”
Funding a project like this is expensive, and Tippett explains that though it’s a boring challenge to confront, it’s worth mentioning. The Anti-Robot team is currently seeking funding via IndieGoGo, a crowd-funding website similar to Kickstarter. With about $30,000 CAD of the hopeful $100,000 CAD, the IndieGoGo project will receive pledges, regardless of reaching the goal.
“Because this is such a large project, we had to go for a large sum. It’s hard to explain to people strategically that you’re going to build a two-story tall robot with only $30,000. People will just think you don’t know what you are talking about. I didn’t want tie all of our effort and all of that hope to a campaign that wouldn’t bring in any money if it wasn’t fully funded.” Basically, the IndieGoGo funds are there to help streamline, and hopefully speed up, the building of the Anti-Robot.
The team hopes to have the Prosthesis construction complete by August of 2015. “We’ve had a couple of wrinkles, so it’s going to be tight,” says Tippett. “But, I’m sticking with August 2015. We want to deploy it for burning man.”