‘Realistic’ Robot Legs Mimic Human Movement

By Amir Khan on July 6, 2012 9:02 AM EDT

Robot
Researchers from the University of Arizona say they have created the most "biologically correct" pair of robot legs ever created, according to a new study, (Photo: University of Arizona)

Researchers from the University of Arizona say they have created the most "biologically correct" pair of robot legs ever created, according to a new study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering. The legs could help researchers better understand how babies learn to walk and lead to better treatment of spinal-injury patients.

The robot mimics the central pattern generator (CPG) of humans -- the network of nerve cells in the lumbar region of the spine that generates rhythmic muscle signals. The CPG produces and controls these signals by gathering information from the body as it walks to regulate movement -- allowing humans to walk without thinking about it.

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The simplest form of the CPG is a "half-center," which consist of two neurons that alternate firing signals to create a rhythm. The half-center is thought to be present in babies, which is why they can be seen taking steps on a treadmill before they have taken their real first step. Researchers hope the robot will shed some light on this.

"This robot represents a complete physical, or 'neurorobotic' model of the system, demonstrating the usefulness of this type of robotics research for investigating the neuropsychological processes underlying walking in humans and animals," researchers wrote in the study.

The researchers said the robot is able to mimic human walking and can have implications for spinal-injury research as well.

"Interestingly, we were able to produce a walking gait, without balance, which mimicked human walking with only a simple half-centre controlling the hips and a set of reflex responses controlling the lower limb," Dr Theresa Klein, study coauthor and researcher at the University of Arizona, told BBC News.  "This underlying network may also form the core of the CPG and may explain how people with spinal cord injuries can regain walking ability if properly stimulated in the months after the injury."

Matt Thornton, gait analysis laboratory manager at the UK's Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, who was not involved in the study, told BBC News that the robot is more advanced than any other walking robot.

"Previous robotic models have mimicked human movement: this one goes further and mimics the underlying human control mechanisms driving that movement," he said. "It may offer a new approach to investigate and understand the link between nervous system control problems and walking pathologies."

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