Amir Shapiro with snake robot Amir Shapiro with snake robot Amir Shapiro heads the robotics lab at Ben-Gurion University. (Photo: Dani Machlis/Ben-Gurion University)

He's building robots that move like animals – including people

Israeli researcher's passion is developing robots that can mimic the way we walk, crawl and grasp.

Some engineers live a life focused on wires and circuits. But Amir Shapiro, who heads the robotics lab in the mechanical engineering department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel, gets his greatest inspiration from nature.

“The engineer that built nature was the best one,” he said, laughing. “And we try to learn from the best.”

Shapiro’s field is biomimetics – developing robots that mimic animals and humans. In the past, he has applied the undulating motions of snakes to create robots that slither through pipes, and spiders, cats and snails for wall-climbing machines. The mucus trails of snails inspired one robot that scaled concrete walls by releasing melted glue to hold it in place until it could move forward and release more glue. For rough walls, he designed a robot with fishing hooks attached to four legs that climbed like a cat.

Robots in Amir Shapiro's lab Shapiro's walking robot in motion. (Photo: Ben-Gurion University)

More recently, he’s looked to mules for four-legged robots, and humans for robots that can walk on two legs and grasp objects. Shapiro’s research helped propel an Israeli team to a No. 14 ranking (out of 106 entries) in last year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge, and he hopes to showcase more at next year’s International Conference of Robotics and Automation in Seattle.

His grasping technology involves an algorithm that enables the robot to pick up and hold different types and sizes of objects. It's now being used by General Motors in car manufacturing. His next project is working on an algorithm that enables a single-handed robot to change its grasp of an object by throwing it in the air and catching it in a different position and orientation.

The walking technology has applications in medical rehabilitation. One system is being used commercially by MediTouch to help elderly patients improve their balance. It simulates hitting an obstacle, and seeing how the patients respond when they’re about to lose their balance. Conversely, human responses have then been incorporated into robotic algorithms for future improvements. “So the biomimicry goes both ways,” said Shapiro.

In this work, he concentrates on the step sequences required for different terrains, and studies their variations. "A robot that walks in a continuous gait and just reacts to changes may not be safe enough and can fall," he explained. "I’ve been working on programming the motion, so it remains stable at all times and selects the footsteps so it will never fail. I started with more stable and slow movements, and now I’m focusing on dynamic locomotion, like jumping from rock to rock."

Robotic maneuvers are defined by computer algorithms and environments, which is why Shapiro is working with computer vision sensor experts from BGU’s computer science department. "The sensors deliver the information," he said. "My research is what to do with the information."

Shapiro, 43, displayed an early affinity for machines. He attended a technical high school, then Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering.

Smitten with robotics, he completed his post-doctoral fellowship at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., developing his snake robots, before joining the Ben-Gurion faculty.

“We can’t copy nature directly, because we don’t have the same materials,” Shapiro said. “We’re using metal instead of bones, motors instead of muscles, chemical energy instead of electrical. Instead of intelligence, we use artificial intelligence, which is not the same. Well, not yet, anyway. We’re doing with what we have, and trying to optimize the boundaries of our constraints. But nature is still good inspiration.”

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