Moving toward the first flying humanoid robot

Researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) have recently been exploring a fascinating idea, that of creating humanoid robots that can fly. To efficiently control the movements of flying robots, objects or vehicles, however, researchers require systems that can reliably estimate the intensity of the thrust produced by propellers, which allow them to move through the air.


As thrust forces are difficult to measure directly, they are usually estimated based on data collected by onboard sensors. The team at IIT recently introduced a new framework that can estimate thrust intensities of flying multi-body systems that are not equipped with thrust-measuring sensors. This framework, presented in a paper published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, could ultimately help them to realize their envisioned flying humanoid robot.


“Our early ideas of making a flying humanoid robot came up around 2016,” Daniele Pucci, head of the Artificial and Mechanical Intelligence lab that carried out the study, told TechXplore. “The main purpose was to conceive robots that could operate in disaster-like scenarios, where there are survivors to rescue inside partially destroyed buildings, and these buildings are difficult to reach because of potential floods and fire around them.”


The key objective of the recent work by Pucci and his colleagues was to devise a robot that can manipulate objects, walk on the ground and fly. As many humanoid robots can both manipulate objects and move on the ground, the team decided to extend the capabilities of a humanoid robot to include flight; rather than developing an entirely new robotic structure.


“Once provided with flight abilities, humanoid robots could fly from one building to another avoiding debris, fire and floods,” Pucci said. “After landing, they could manipulate objects to open doors and close gas valves, or walk inside buildings for indoor inspection, for instance looking for survivors of a fire or natural disaster.”

Initially, Pucci and his colleagues tried to provide iCub, a renowned humanoid robot created at IIT, with the ability to balance its body on the ground, for instance standing on a single foot. Once they achieved this, they started working on broadening the robot’s locomotion skills, so that it could also fly and move in the air. The team refer to the area of research they have been focusing on as ‘aerial humanoid robotics.”


“To the best of our knowledge, we produced the first work about flying humanoid robots,” Pucci said. “That paper was obviously testing flight controllers in simulation environments only, but given the promising outcomes, we embarked upon the journey of designing iRonCub, the first jet-powered humanoid robot presented in our latest paper.”

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