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A New Way of Walking

A machine that strides like an animal

Last February, OSU President Ed Ray shared the spotlight at the Oregon Convention Center with a robot. Before more than 700 people at the State of the University speech, a machine the size of a small suitcase rose up on two legs and smoothly strode – not rolled or lurched — across the stage. For the Oregon State College of Engineering, this simple maneuver represented more than a decade of research into the mechanics and control systems that define one of the most basic of animal functions: the ability to walk.

The robot named Cassie was built in the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory at Oregon State. Two of the lab’s engineers, Jonathan Hurst and Mikhail Jones, partnered with Damion Shelton, a graduate school colleague of Hurst’s at Carnegie Mellon University, to create a company to commercialize Cassie: Agility Robotics.

“My goal, since Day One, has been to understand legged locomotion and get it out into the world,” says Hurst. “When I was in graduate school, there weren’t a lot of jobs in that field. We knew that when the technology was ready, we’d start a company.”

The only firm in the world that manufactures a biodynamically realistic two-legged robot, Agility Robotics opened its doors in Albany last fall. Within three months, the firm sold machines to researchers at the University of Michigan, Caltech and a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“When we were thinking about starting a business,” says Hurst, “my years as a professor were of no help at all. I didn’t know the terminology or the first thing about it. It is very important to have people who can help us understand how to do this and provide basic advice.”

The engineers found that help at the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator. “It was important that they focus their product on what it does best,” says Mark Lieberman, director of the Accelerator. “In this case, it’s about getting from here to there as efficiently as possible, not about turning door knobs.”

Cassie, the world’s first robot that moves with the agility and efficiency of an animal, was developed in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

Agility Robotics, says Hurst, has a simple and straightforward mission: to implement mobility for intelligent machines. On the basis of previous research results at OSU, the company received funding from the Willamette Angel Conference, the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) and a venture capital firm.

With most of its parts machined in Corvallis and Albany, the world’s most advanced walking machine shares a Made-in-Oregon pedigree with products such as hazelnuts, Douglas-fir lumber and ink-jet printers.

By achieving an efficient and elegant solution to a basic need, adds Karl Mundorff, Accelerator director, Cassie will help researchers realize other benefits. “This will help people get jobs done that the market hasn’t even envisioned yet.”

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.