Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

Automatic for the robots

A computer model inspired by animal anatomy generates and tests hundreds of robot designs.

February 23, 2021

Robot design is usually a painstaking process, but MIT researchers have developed a system that helps automate the task. Once it’s told which parts you have—such as wheels, joints, and body segments—and what terrain the robot will need to navigate, RoboGrammar is on the case, generating optimized structures and control programs.

To rule out “nonsensical” designs, the researchers developed an animal-inspired “graph grammar”—a set of rules for how parts can be connected, says Allan Zhao, a PhD student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The rules were particularly informed by the anatomy of arthropods such as insects and lobsters, which all have a central body with a variable number of segments that may have legs attached. (The grammar also allows wheels.)

robot designs
COURTESY OF THE RESEARCHERS

RoboGrammar can generate thousands of potential structures based on these rules. Choosing among them requires simulating each robot’s performance with a controller—the instructions governing the movement sequence of a robot’s motors. Using an algorithm that prioritizes rapid forward movement, the researchers developed an individual controller for each robot. Then they turned the simulated robots loose and let a neural network figure out which designs moved most efficiently.

Zhao, whose team plans to test some of the winning designs in the real world, describes RoboGrammar as a “tool for robot designers to expand the space of robot structures they draw upon.” To his surprise, though, most of the structures it came up with were four-legged, just like the majority designed by humans.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.