A problem-solving approach IT workers should learn from robotics engineers

January 19, 2016
John Quinn

Google-owned Boston Dynamics got some bad news in the final days of 2015.

After years of development and intensive field trials, the Massachusetts-based robotics company learned that the U.S. Marines had decided to reject its four-legged robotic mule, Big Dog. The reason? The thing is too damn noisy for combat, where close quarters and the occasional need for stealth make excess machine noise a liability.

The setback reminded me of a story another group of robotics engineers told me about the development of their breakthrough machine, a robotic exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk and soldiers to hump heavy packs without wearing down. It also reminded me of a powerful approach to solving problems and dealing with setbacks that I’ve encountered again and again reporting on robotics.

Ekso Bionics, which went public in 2015, invented the first viable untethered exoskeleton, one that doesn’t need to be plugged into an external power source. Their achievement rests on one engineering breakthrough in particular, and to arrive at it Ekso’s engineers had to do something that’s surprisingly difficult but incredibly instructive for non-engineers–they had to change the way they thought about their problem.

In the early 2000s, the engineers that would go on to found Ekso were working in UC Berkeley’s Robotic and Human Engineering Lab under a DARPA grant. DARPA had funded more than one exoskeleton project (the military really wants robotic soldiers) so the threat of being down-selected loomed over each phase of development. Berkeley’s exoskeleton began coming together quickly. It was a massively powerful machine that drew on the most advanced robotics research of the day.

But as the engineers began testing various components in isolation on a workbench, they realized their device would be too power-hungry to work off batteries, an Achilles heel of many robots at that point. Scrambling for a workaround, they started looking at internal combustion engines. The engineers tracked down a Czech man who was legendary in the remote control airplane community for crafting small and extremely powerful engines for racing, which he made himself in a home garage.

It was a promising fix to the power problem: The engine was small enough to mount to the back of the exoskeleton and powerful enough to run a portable electric generator. But there was a downside: The piercing scream of the little engines meant that serious ear protection would be necessary for anyone standing within a hundred feet of them. With the power source spewing exhaust, the team also found out the hard way that it wasn’t suitable for use indoors.

To read the rest of this article, published in ZD Net, please click here.