Watch the upgraded Ghost Minitaur robot scramble over ice without falling

The new and improved robot can now traverse grass, rocks, sand, ice, and snow.

When the Ghost Minitaur robot debuted last fall, we were impressed with the gearless design. Since then, the Ghost Robotics team has improved the robot's capabilities and started selling it. So far, customers include Google, Army Research Labs, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Washington, and University of Pennsylvania.

Most mobile robots use wheels or tracks to get around, which is great for smooth surfaces such as warehouse floors, but not ideal for traversing outdoor environments. Instead of wheels, the Minitaur has four legs that it uses to run, hop, crouch, and climb. Even better, it uses direct-drive technology that eliminates the noisy, expensive, and fragile gearbox that plagues conventional robots.

The robot is doing all of this without any external sensors on the legs, body or elsewhere.

— Jiren Parikh, CEO Ghost Robotics

This endearing robot has been updated so now it can navigate grass, rocks, and sand. It can hop onto ledges and leap across 2.5-foot gaps. The Minitaur can even climb up snowy hills and effectively (if not gracefully) scramble over ice. Other legged robots walk at a fixed rate, so they can't adjust to slippery or uneven surfaces. But when the Minitaur's toes start to slip, the legs recirculate and move faster, swinging around and repositioning themselves to prevent the body from falling.

"The robot is doing all of this without any external sensors on the legs, body or elsewhere," Jiren Parikh, CEO of Ghost Robotics tells ZDNet. "It's basically sensing everything directly through the legs into the direct-drive motor design. So, from locomotion and local navigation over objects, hazards, gaps and ledges we are doing something that is not being done by anybody else in legged robots."

In addition to being less expensive, the direct-drive design also makes the legs more sensitive and reactive to the environment. Plus, if one of the legs gets damaged, Minitaur can still limp along. The ability to handle uneven surfaces will be vital to applications such as scientific field work, military work, or search and rescue missions. Parikh, says:

We have been fortunate to have many orders from the robotics research community. While we can't specifically tell you what our customers are using it for, overall they are taking our direct drive design model and work we have done on complex locomotion / gaits to research building their own legged robots, general research and learning in academic settings, as well as machine learning and training applications.

Now that Minitaur is commercialized, we look forward to seeing new creative ways that its direct-drive legs will be used for different purposes. The limbs are controlled by software, so developers can design control algorithms to adjust the robot's abilities when needs change. It is quite versatile -- for example, one customer is planning to outfit Minitaur with flippers so it can swim in the future.

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