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Student receives best paper award for research on bipedal robots

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By Tom Moone and Bridget Maiellaro, ECE Illinois
July 24, 2008

  • Graduate student Robert Gregg and Professor Mark Spong's paper discusses how to control robots to walk like humans.
  • Possible applications include improving prosthetic limbs, navigating uneven terrestrial surfaces, and creating efficient locomotive mechanisms.
  • A future goal of the project is to have tools on the robots' arms so that they can perform tasks.

Robert De Moss Gregg, IV
Robert De Moss Gregg, IV

ECE graduate student Robert Gregg recently received the award for best student paper at the 2008 American Control Conference. The paper, "Reduction-Based Control with Application to Three-Dimensional Bipedal Walking Robots," was co-authored by ECE Professor Mark W. Spong.

"Our paper discusses a way of controlling robots to mimic human walking," Gregg said. "Bipedal form of motion is the most efficient walking form that we have. That’s why evolution has turned us in this direction. We’re trying to mimic that based on what we can do."

The research paper includes information that Gregg and Spong have worked on for several years, such as their method of using reduction to separate the control problems between the different planes of motion.

"When a walking robot is trying to move in three dimensions... it’s hard to use simple methods," Gregg said. "Most of our motion is on a sagittal plane of motion (an imaginary plane that travels from the top to the bottom of the body, dividing it into left and right portions). There are many well-known methods for controlling sagittal plane robots. We wanted to separate that control problem where it’s very well understood. Then we can control the rest of the degrees of freedom separately."

Incentives that drive the research in their field include the potential for improving prosthetic limbs, navigating uneven terrestrial surfaces, and creating efficient locomotive mechanisms, Gregg wrote in his two page summary to the National Science Foundation, the organization that has funded their work.

Gregg was one of the four finalists who presented his paper on the first day of the conference, which was held June 11 through June 13 at the Westin Seattle Hotel in Seattle, Washington. Other finalists included ECE graduate student Shreyas Sundaram for his paper entitled, "Distributed Function Calculation Via Linear Iterations in the Presence of Malicious Agents- Part II: Overcoming Malicious Behavior."

Since it was his first conference paper presentation, Gregg said he was more concerned about giving a good talk than winning the award. He did however hope one of the University of Illinois students would receive the honor.

Currently completing a summer internship in manufacturing robotics at the Boeing Company, Gregg will return to the University of Illinois next month. This fall, he will teach Introduction to Robotics (ECE 470) and continue to work on his research on bipedal robots for his dissertation. Since the grant from the National Science Foundation expires in August, Gregg also plans to write proposals for more funding in the near future.

Although his adviser, Professor Spong, will be leaving the University of Illinois to be dean of engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, Gregg plans to stay in contact with him. He said that Spong will remain a temporary faculty member, continuing to advise him from Dallas, Texas, until he graduates in two years. In addition, Gregg will travel to Texas to talk to Spong about their work. Gregg said that the transition could open the door to collaboration with other universities interested in building robots.

"The future goal of this project would be to get robots that have tools on their arms to walk around and perform tasks," Gregg said. "As of now, we’re demonstrating that robots can walk like humans. But the models we’ve simulated only have torsos, so we need to make more realistic robots that can actually do stuff."

About the American Control Conference

The 2008 American Control Conference is annual conference of the American Automatic Control Council, a United States national member organization of the International Federation for Automatic Control; it highlights the new developments, technology, and applications in control science and engineering.

To qualify for the best student paper award, Gregg had to be the primary author. In addition, the paper needed to discuss his involvement to the researcher, demonstrating how he was a significant contributor to the project as well as the field and scientific community.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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