April 24, 2013

Squishy robots evolve to run

Sometimes cute and wacky, and always on the move, a Cornell research video in which soft robots evolve to run is going viral.

A team that includes researchers from the Creative Machines Lab led by Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical engineering and computer science, have “unshackled evolution” – giving evolution the ability to create robots with synthetic materials akin to muscle, tissue and bone.

They incorporated concepts from developmental biology and how nature builds complex animals – from jellyfish to jaguars. The result is an array of bizarre, simulated robots that evolve a diverse series of gaits and gallops.

The paper describing these soft-bodied robots will appear in Proceedings of the Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference and is titled “Unshackling Evolution: Evolving Soft Robots With Multiple Materials and a Powerful Generative Encoding.”

Lead author Nick Cheney, a graduate student in Lipson’s lab, will present the paper at the July conference in Amsterdam. Robert MacCurdy, also a graduate student in Lipson’s lab, contributed to the work, as well as Jeff Clune, assistant professor at University of Wyoming and former visiting scientist at Cornell.

The video shows evolution in action: A creature evolves into a galloping, soft robot over 1,000 generations. While 1,000 generations is relatively short by natural evolution standards, it is enough to demonstrate the power of evolution to create counterintuitive designs, according to the researchers.

 In the paper, they describe how they challenged human engineers to try to design robots made of these soft and hard materials. The human efforts paled in comparison to the designs resulting from evolution.

More than a decade ago, Lipson led a project called Golem that similarly evolved robots, and he later built them with a 3-D printer. That video and others can be viewed at the Creative Machines Lab website.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Open Manufacturing Program.