Robots learn not to fall

Many mobile robots do a pretty good job of maintaining their balance while moving, but like humans, they still tend to lose their footing from time to time. While this bodes well for overtaking them during the upcoming robocalypse, it usually means more potential for expensive repairs and time-consuming maintenance until then. As first introduced earlier this year and highlighted by Engadget On Wednesday, at least a few more robots could be saved from falling in the near future thanks to advances made by researchers at France’s University of Lorraine.

[Related: The Boston Dynamics robots are surprisingly good dancers.]

Through a a lot of Through trial and error – allegedly over 882,000 training simulations, to be more precise – the developers designed a new “damage reflex” system for their humanoid robotic test subject. When activated, the robot’s neural network will quickly identify the best spot on a nearby wall to support itself if its stability is compromised. Well, maybe not so much “if” as more “when” as can be seen in the demonstration video below.

As Engadget explained, the testing procedure sounds fairly simple, if a little macabre: to demonstrate the damage reflex system in action, the robot has one of its legs “broken” to ensure it tips over towards a nearby test wall. About three times out of four, the machine’s arm was able to find a fixed point to brace itself against to keep from falling to its peril. That’s pretty good considering all the physical variations in location, balance, weight and distribution that go into determining how to prevent an accident in real time.

[Related: Boston Dynamics gave its dog-like robot a charging dock and an arm on its head.]

There are a few caveats to the early iteration of the Damage Reflex system: first, it only prevents a robot from falling over; it cannot help him recover or correct himself. It’s also currently only been tested in a stationary test robot, which means the system isn’t currently able to fix accidents that can occur while walking or mid-step. However, the researchers intend to further develop their system so that it is also able to handle mobile machines and use nearby objects such as chairs or tables to its advantage.

Companies like Tesla and Boston Dynamics are striving to bring bipedal robots into everyday life, a goal that’s really only realistic as long as their products are relatively affordable, both to buy and to maintain. Systems like Damage Reflex, which are still in their infancy, could soon do a lot to protect robots and extend their lifespan.

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