Robots Designed to Show How Dinosaurs Moved

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 13, 2003

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If Peter Dilworth gets his way, museum dinosaur exhibits may soon whir and hum into action—and capture the fascination of a whole new generation of scientists as lifelike robots stand up and walk around like the ancient creatures did millions of years ago.

Dilworth, a former research scientist in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, currently runs Dinosaur Robots, Inc. in Boston. His aim is to make lifelike dinobots.

"If it is in a museum, I would think that a lot of kids would see dinosaurs walk and go up to them," he said. "It is a new opportunity to get them interested in science, see what a cool thing it is."

Dilworth's original creation, a representation of a birdlike, big-brained, meat-eating Troodon dinosaur that prowled Earth about 75 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period, walked across his desk in October 2000 and become the first two-legged three dimensional dinobot to walk outside of Japan.

Now Dilworth and his team of collaborators, which includes noted paleontologist and artist Gregory Paul from Baltimore, Maryland, and special effects company Hall Train Studio of Toronto, Canada, are putting the finishing touches on a four-legged Protoceratops, a pig-sized horned dinosaur that also lived during the late Cretaceous.

In addition to capturing the attention of young children, the team hopes their robotic dinosaurs will help scientists better understand how dinosaurs moved around and behaved. As well, the robotics should lead to better artificial legs and other devices to allow disabled people to walk.

"Of course, part of the effect is simply the wow factor," said Paul, "to see sophisticated devices that closely mimic extinct beasts that so many find so fascinating."

Brawn and Brains

It took Dilworth six years to create the Troodon dinosaur, which he calls Troody. It weighs 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms), stands 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, is about 4 feet (1.3 meters) long from snout to tail, and is chock full of sophisticated electronics and an assortment of screws, rods, and springs.

One of the engineering challenges he had to overcome was the stiffness of the robot world to give Troody a lifelike gait. To do this, Dilworth took advantage of technology developed at MIT's Leg Lab called force control, which gives robots springy joints, not stiff ones. The technology is also applied to the Protoceratops, which is nearing completion.

"Our robots use force control to walk more smoothly," said Dilworth. The system consists of sensors that measure the force on the springs that make up the dinosaur's joints. When the force reaches a pre-programmed point it comes to rest, giving the robots a more realistic walk.

Continued on Next Page >>




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