• 05.24.10

Sightless Mabel’s Fancy Footwork a Giant Leap for Robotkind

Robots with legs are, you might think, no great shakes. After all, they come in both four- and two-legged varieties–of the former, Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog and Little Dog are the most notable, and you can check out the latest video from small fry here. When it comes to two-legged versions, everyone has heard of Asimo, Honda’s uber-robot, whose bottom half consists of a rigid geared drivetrain, meaning there’s not a whole lot of coping with uneven terrain that he can do.


Enter MABEL. She’s two years old, and the offspring of Jessy W. Grizzle’s Control Systems Laboratory at the University of Michigan and, most astonishing of all, she’s blind. Whereas most robots rely on eyes (okay, cameras) to see where they are going, MABEL uses a combination of springs attached to motors that function rather like a human leg’s tendons do, plus and a clever algorithm to keep her upright.

Hey, MABEL, want fries with that shake?

Although there’s something just the tiniest bit creepy about a bipedal android attached to what looks like one of those contraptions that you sometimes see horses exercised on (I think it’s the rhythmic left-right left-right as she stomps her way round and round the circle–shades of They Shoot Horses Don’t They?–that does it for me) most impressive is the way that MABEL judges the height of the obstacles that her creators throw in her path. Sadly, it doesn’t last for long, as she breaks a leg, but she can maneuver her way over a six-inch step, just using her “tendons” to gauge the effort needed to clear the slabs.

Imagine how this kind of tech would work on a robot destined for the moon, or another planet. There’d be none of those getting stuck in the sand shenanigans that Spirit and Opportunity had to deal with on Mars. Add on a couple of pairs of eyes, and she’s she’s going to be even smarter and more capable.

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.