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ETH Zurich researchers teach quadruped robots to use their legs for object manipulation

In a groundbreaking development that pushes the boundaries of legged robotics, researchers at ETH Zurich have introduced a cutting-edge reinforcement learning model that empowers four-legged robots to interact with objects and their surroundings in unprecedented ways – all without the need for dedicated robotic arms or grippers.

Traditionally, quadruped robots have shown great promise in tackling simple tasks at ground level, such as environment exploration and object carrying. However, most have been limited in their ability to manipulate objects or interact with humans, often requiring specialized and bulky additional components like robotic arms.



The ETH Zurich team, led by Philip Arm, has shattered this paradigm with their innovative model, which was recently detailed in a paper published on the preprint server arXiv. By harnessing the power of reinforcement learning, a technique widely employed in robotics, the researchers have unleashed a new level of versatility for legged robots.

"The idea to use robotic legs for manipulation has been around for a while," Arm explained to Tech Xplore. "However, most of these approaches were targeted at one single task. Our key objective was to develop a versatile approach that would allow legged robots to tackle a wider range of real-world problems."

Reinforcement Learning: The Key to Dexterous Quadrupeds The model developed by Arm and his team was trained using reinforcement learning, a process in which the robot is tasked with bringing its foot to a desired position, repeating this action countless times in simulations while refining its skills over time. By varying parameters such as target locations and introducing disturbances, the robot became highly robust to the uncertainties it would face in the real world.

Initial experiments yielded remarkable results, with the four-legged robot successfully tackling object manipulation tasks that were previously unattainable without dedicated hardware. From opening fridge doors and carrying objects to pressing buttons, pushing obstacles out of the way, and even collecting rocks from the ground, the robot demonstrated a level of dexterity previously unseen in legged systems.

"We found that the model even teaches a robot to hop so that it can reach a target that is a few meters away," Arm marveled. "We were actually surprised by how many tasks we could solve with the robot's foot, including opening a fridge door."

A Whole-Body Approach to Manipulation Unlike other approaches that aim to enhance the object manipulation skills of quadruped robots, Arm's model teaches the robots to leverage their entire body when necessary, leaning forward to reach a button with one of its feet, for example. This whole-body approach not only expands the robot's range of motion but also demonstrates the power of reinforcement learning in unlocking previously untapped capabilities.

"Right now, the robot is still teleoperated, but if we manage to automate many of these tasks, it will extend the application range of legged robots without the need to change their hardware," Arm said, hinting at the vast potential of their work.

Expanding the Horizons of Legged Robotics As Arm and his collaborators continue to refine their model, training it on additional tasks and increasing its autonomy, the implications for the field of legged robotics are profound. Once fully automated, this approach could significantly broaden the real-world applications of quadruped robots, enabling them to independently manipulate objects, push buttons, move levers, and open doors during inspections of warehouses, infrastructure, and other facilities.

The researchers' next steps involve further enhancing their approach's autonomy, automating more tasks, and exploring object grasping and different types of door-opening scenarios. As they inch closer to their goal, the robotics community eagerly anticipates the potential impact of this groundbreaking work, which promises to redefine the capabilities of legged robots and unlock a new era of robotic dexterity and versatility.

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