Super Robot Ninja

Monday, June 18, 2012


When Chris Farrell travels with Kai, his more than 2-foot-tall humanoid robot, he takes it aboard planes as carry-on baggage. Passing through airport security,  Chris and his companion are often singled out for further scrutiny by agents who aren’t sure what to make of 11 pounds of gleaming aluminum with a head, torso and limbs, dressed in sneakers and toddler clothes from Old Navy.

“I got a t-shirt for him that says, ‘Super Robot Ninja’ on it,” says Farrell, a senior Computer Science major who’s focusing on robotics at the College of Computing.

While Farrell clearly enjoys the humor of dressing Kai in children’s clothing, there are also practical reasons: the outfit protects a very sophisticated piece of robotics—which Farrell made from scratch—from being damaged in transit, and the shoes help him get traction while walking.

“My goal with Kai is to get it to walk like a human,” he says.

That’s a lot more complicated than it sounds. Kai is equipped with 25 computer-controlled servos— motorized devices that rotate a shaft to control the angle of a piece of machinery, in this case the various parts of Kai’s body, arms and legs. Humans often move and walk without any conscious thought at all, but for Kai each step requires deliberate and precise control of the servos.  It’s tricky, but Farrell is on track to make it happen.

Professor Mike Stilman, who works with Farrell in the Humanoid Robotics Lab, says Kai is “perhaps one of the most capable mini-humanoids in the world today.”

Farrell first got interested in robots in the 4th grade, when he entered and won his school science fair with a robot he built using a Lego Mindstorm kit (a Lego set that combines programmable bricks with electric motors, sensors, and regular Lego bricks and Technic pieces such as gears, axles and beams).

By the time he was 14, Farrell was using Lego Mindstorm kits to teach robotics to gifted children both younger and older than he was (some as old as 17) during summer programs at Southern Maine Community College. 

But Farrell says his father, Rob, a systems engineer at a veterinary instruments company, was the first to introduce him to robotics while growing up in Gray, Maine, a village near the state capital of Portland.

“For as long as I can remember, my dad had remote control cars, planes, helicopters and ornithopters [aircraft that fly by flapping their wings like a bird],” he says. “We used to play with those a lot and add cameras and stuff.”

Father and son are still working in robotics together at Farrell Robotics, the company they started in May 2007. Chris is chief science officer, responsible for mechanical concept and design, move creation and ergonomics.  Rob is chief executive officer in charge of programming, algorithms and electrical.

The pair travels to international robotics competitions together with their custom-designed competitive robots, Oro and Zog. At RoboGames 2007 in San Francisco, the Farrells dominated the heavyweight humanoid wrestling competition by taking gold (Chris) and silver (Rob) medals. They both placed in the biped race, with Rob once again winning silver and Chris taking bronze.

“At one point in the wrestling competition, we were going against each other,” Chris Farrell says. “It was interesting.”

They’ve returned to RoboGames every year since—and have dominated. In both 2009 and 2010, the Farrells’ humanoids took first and second place in the boxing and running competitions. A second-degree black belt in karate, Farrell says his martial arts training helps him prepare the robots and control them when they compete.

“You want to push the robot to the limits and make it deal with outside forces, like getting hit or kicked,” he says. “If it can fight and still maintain control and balance, then you know it will be able to do other things.”

Farrell believes humanoid robots will be able to do lots of other things in the future: serve as household maids; help people who are elderly, sick or disabled live more independently in their own homes; or even do jobs that are dangerous for humans. He is working with Stilman and Regents’ Professor Ron Arkin, who directs the Mobile Robot Laboratory, to discover ways to enable multiple humanoid robots to work in tandem to accomplish tasks, with one robot even designated as the “master” that directs the others.

“I see robotics as a way to help people in the future,” he says. “It seems like a far reach now, but it’s all going to happen.”

Farrell’s immediate plans are to stay at Georgia Tech and earn a doctoral degree in robotics, keep up with competitions and continue working at Farrell Robotics. In the longer term, he hopes someday to create the kind of robots that can improve—even save—lives. 

“Whether I accomplish the goal of creating such a robot or not, I enjoy creating something that is real and can respond back to me,” Farrell said in an interview on a robotics blog after his triumph at RoboGames 2007. “Seeing one’s own creation come alive after a lot of work is a great feeling, only made better by knowing that someday it could help others.”