Moving Forward on Megamech?

[Main image by Don J. Morgan]

We’ve seen them in everything to manga and anime (such as BattleTech and Robotech) to Star Wars.  They’re giant walking robots.  A dream for many a nerd, the walking robot is cooler than anything on wheels.  Few things can strike fear in the hearts of the enemy (whoever that enemy may be) than seeing giant AT-AT walkers coming in their direction.  A few years ago, I read about some guys who were going to try to make a megamech powered by an automotive engine and made of scrap metal.  As far as I know, the project was abandoned.  So just how possible are these things?  Can it be done?

Building a giant mechanoid to have a proper walking motion is no easy task.  The mechanics of walking have been known for a long time.  Animators have been using anatomical knowledge to produce believable motion for decades.  But it’s taken about that long just to reproduce those results artificially in the real world.  The mechanics are fairly complicated. Not only does the physical motion need to be mimicked in a way to allow proper locomotion, but the synchronizing of all the elements must be perfect.

Getting the walking motion down is difficult, but it’s not the hardest part.  The hardest part is getting such a mechanoid to remain upright.  It’s not as difficult to do with a four-legged behemoth as it is with a two-legged one.  Proper balance requires the use of accelerometers and gyroscopes.  Accelerometers measure change.  It’s what makes a Nintendo Wii remote work, as well as a lot of virtual reality devices.  A gyroscope is used to identify up and down, relative to gravity.  This is what allows a Segway scooter to keep upright.  By being able to sense up and down as well as its movement allows the robot to make small adjustments to keep itself upright.  This is not much different from how the human body can remain upright using information from the inner ear.  When a toddler first learns to walk, its legs wobble around as it tries to make the necessary corrections to keep on two feet.  As we get older, the muscular corrections become so quick and intuitive, we don’t even notice what it really takes to remain erect.  Mechanized robotics need to be able to make similar types of corrections.  Enough small adjustments and a robot can balance on a beach ball, providing the beach ball is strong enough to stand up to a multi-ton hunk of metal.

Nothing of the magnitude of a mech we’re talking about actually exists as far as anyone knows.  There have been attempts, such as the Japanese Landwalker.  But it doesn’t really “walk”.  Rather it seems to shuffle along like an old man.  (And is that a gasoline engine I hear powering the thing?)  Shuffling is not exactly the kind of thing we need to traverse various terrains and crush hapless enemies that get in the way.  Besides, I don’t think they make canes and tweed jackets that big.

While we may not have a truly working prototype of a real megamech, I think we have great small-scale references to work from.  These I believe pretty much prove the concept.  All that needs to be done is to adapt these technologies and scale them up.

i-Foot

The first Item of interest is the Toyota i-Foot.  It’s a lot like a miniature All-Terrain Scout Transport (AT-ST) Scout Walker from Return of the Jedi.  Although it’s a bit small to do battle against Ewoks, it would most likely be able to hold its own against an army of hamsters.  The i-Foot wouldn’t exactly win a foot race against Jesse Owens.  For that matter, it probably wouldn’t win a foot race against Chris Farley.

But it does have some rather impressive movement abilities.  It not only can move forward, backward, sideways, and in circles, but it can also go up and down steps.  And if the pilot gets good enough, the Toyota i-Foot might one day appear on Dancing With the Droids.

LS-3 Alpha Dog

Next is something more like the All-Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) from The Empire Strikes Back.  It’s the LS-3 cargo carrier from Boston Dynamics.  Designed as a small cargo carrier for the US military with a grant from DARPA, it’s got a great sense of balance and can traverse almost any terrain.  Try to kick it over, and it regains its balance.  Granted it’s noisy and it’s legs don’t seem to stop.  But as a proof of concept, it certainly works.  I’m just looking forward to the day when these things can fetch the newspaper and catch a Frisbee.  Just make sure you house train it.  Otherwise it might mark its territory by oiling the carpet.

Petman

Speaking of robots with great balance, another one from Boston Dynamics has a humanoid design.  It’s a robot called Petman, and it has quite a range of movement.  Sure it looks a lot like the Terminator with no head or a naked C3PO … with no head.  But like the LS-3, it has realistic movement which contributes to it’s ability to balance and regain its footing.  It does need to be harnessed for power.  This is probably a good thing.  Otherwise, I swear it would become hellbent on finding Sarah Connor!

Activelink Powerloader

Then there’s the Activelink Powerloader.  It seems to be a bit more like Ripley’s armor in Alien.  The purpose of the Powerloader is to enhance the strength of the wearer.  They claim that a person’s strength can be enhanced by a factor of one hundred!  Designed for use on construction job sites, the Powerloader uses Direct Force Feedback to assist the user’s lifting abilities.  The amount of lift assist can be adjusted in the machine’s software.  They hope to begin testing the technology on construction sites as early as 2015.  They will probably start equipping their  brainwashed minions in order to enslave the world shortly thereafter.

So we have some small-scale examples of how a megamech can really exist.  While not cheap or easy, it certainly is doable.  A nerd’s trip to the grocery store couldn’t get any more epic than that!

 

Daniel C. Handley

Dan Handley was raised a Trekkie, fell in love with "Star Wars" at an early age, and became obsessed with comic book superheroes. He spent his youth dreaming of how to get real superpowers, starships, and so on.

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