Illini Spine: Making Robots Natural Through Distributed Actuation
Robots impact countless aspects of human life. There is a critical need to re-imagine them not only as an embodiment of mechanical joints and artificial intelligence but also as a complex network of electromechanical actuators. Professor Banerjee’s mission is to create a class of modular and distributed electromechanical actuators that enable robots to be agile, efficient, and capable of reproducing biological motions that are impossible today. As an embodiment of a distributed actuation mechanism, the project aims to emulate a biological spine. A spine is fundamental to providing flexibility and balance in animals while allowing efficient locomotion. The construction of a synthetic spine is remarkably different from other standard robotic mechanisms—such as arms and legs—due to the presence of multiple single-joint segments, each with a limited range of motion. Synthesizing such an actuator will need engineering expertise as well as artistic creativity. The proposed design strategy will take advantage of the limited displacement requirement to increase the actuator's torque-to-weight ratio. Integrated design of mechanical springs and electromagnetics will enable a customized torque-displacement characteristic to achieve compliance and high efficiency similar to muscles. The deployment of appropriate control and estimation techniques is proposed to vary output torque and compliance. The design methodology will be validated by constructing a hardware prototype of a ten-link synthetic spine.