Hereid’s NSF CAREER award will advance bipedal robot safety

Posted: May 12, 2022
Ayonga Hereid and graduate student Guillermo Castillo Martinez work in their lab with a bipedal robot
Assistant Professor Ayonga Hereid (left) and Graduate Research Associate Guillermo Castillo Martinez work in the lab with Digit, a bipedal humanoid robot.

Ayonga Hereid, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has earned a $600,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for his research to advance the motion control technology of humanoid robots and lower-limb exoskeletons.

The CAREER award is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) most prestigious recognition of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of both. Hereid’s project is funded by the NSF program, Foundational Research in Robotics.

His project proposes a novel walking control framework for humanoid robots and powered lower-limb exoskeletons by integrating physical insights of bipedal locomotion with machine learning algorithms.

The humanlike design of bipedal robots equips these machines with unique advantages while navigating challenging terrains such as hills or stairs, operating in restricted environments, and interacting with other humans in a natural manner. However, they are inherently unstable, according to Hereid, and existing algorithms are prone to fail.

“The technological realization of safe and dynamic behaviors in bipedal robots remains challenging due to the fundamental lack of understanding of the underlying mechanisms of locomotion controllers,” he explained. “Our project could remove the limitations of current locomotion control for bipedal robots and deploy these intelligent machines to complex real-world tasks.”

Inspired by how humans learn multifaceted tasks, Hereid will create a hierarchical learning structure to effectively develop safe and dynamic walking behaviors for bipedal robots, while improving efficiency and scalability of those behaviors. Potential real-world applications include, but are not limited to, curbside delivery, warehouse automation, search and rescue, and even space and planetary exploration.

“Our work will also help improve assistive devices such as lower-limb exoskeletons, which could help restore mobility lost due to stroke or other movement disorders, potentially improving the quality of life of millions of mobility-restricted individuals,” he said.

Researchers have already made significant progress toward their goals.

“Our learning-based approach allows the Digit, our humanoid robot, to walk over various terrain types, both indoor and outdoor,” said Hereid. “This is the first-ever experimental implementation of a machine learning-based motion controller with the Digit robot. Our next step is to have it autonomously navigate the Ohio State campus like the GrubHub food delivery robots.”

The team is also working toward translating the techniques to their powered lower-limb exoskeleton, and will soon start pre-clinical trials with healthy human subjects.

A substantial element of the proposed work is to integrate education and outreach activities alongside the proposed research agenda.

“The anthropomorphic nature of bipedal robots has broad appeal to people of all ages and demographics,” said Hereid. “We will leverage that to develop concerted education and outreach initiatives that target general audiences at various education levels.”

These initiatives will provide awareness and mentoring for underrepresented minority students from K-12 to graduate school and encourage them to pursue education and research activities in robotics, he added. The hope is that the work could increase diversity in the talent pool of STEM students and improve students’ preparation for future careers in industry and academics.

Hereid joined Ohio State’s College of Engineering in 2019 and leads the Cyberbotics (Cyber-Physical and Robotics) Lab. Prior to Ohio State, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering from Zhejiang University in China, and his PhD in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu