Meet Baleka, Africa’s first two-legged robot

25 March 2019 | Story and photos Laura Rawden. Read time 9 min.
A jumping, two-legged robot developed at UCT is helping researchers figure out new ways for robots to move and inspire young scientists.
A jumping, two-legged robot developed at UCT is helping researchers figure out new ways for robots to move and inspire young scientists.

This jumping bot is setting the stage for the future of robotics research led by Dr Amir Patel’s team at the UCT Department of Electrical Engineering. It is work that can not only improve the way robots move, but also influence sports science and inspire young minds.

Jumping tests with the bot

“There is so much being done in robotics that can inspire future researchers, but much of it focuses on steady-state or constant-velocity motion,” says Patel. “The new frontier is transient, rapid movement – and we are one of the first groups looking at that.”

Moving faster

Robots that are capable of transient motion can quickly get up to speed, navigate objects and come to a halt. With these abilities, robots could be sent on dangerous search-and-rescue missions where they can move quickly to dodge falling rubble, for example.

But such movements require an understanding of how biped and quadruped – two- and four-legged – robots pick up speed and slow down. “In the robotics community, these motions are largely ignored due to their complexity,” says Callen Fisher, a PhD student working with Patel’s team.

Instead, robotics research is largely focused on constant speed and energy efficiency. This is important for robots that perform repetitive tasks, such as moving in a straight line, and for ensuring they get the most battery life. But it leaves a knowledge gap that the UCT team aims to fill.

 

“The hope is that our work will not only result in novel robotic applications, but also serve as platforms for biomechanics to better understand the way humans and animals move.”

“In the bigger picture, it’s not useful to have a robot that can run very fast if it needs a few minutes to reach that speed or to slow down from that speed,” says Fisher. “We are trying to solve that by developing novel controllers and platforms.”

Designing a robot

The first step in achieving this is Baleka. Named for the Zulu word for ‘sprint’, Baleka was designed by master’s student Alexander Blom as a platform capable of testing controllers for these agile motions. It was a process that took two years, with at least one year dedicated to design and optimisation.

“It was really difficult to do, because no-one knows anything about rapid acceleration motions,” Blom says. “We had to develop an entirely novel way to design the robot.”

Using trajectory optimisation, Blom was able to identify the best robot structure for their purposes. This involved writing a unique algorithm with defined parameters for speeding up and stopping. “By testing acceleration and deceleration motions, and trying out different leg lengths and gear ratios, we could identify what we needed to build,” says Blom.

From there, the team had to develop the robot’s operating system along with its sensors, electronics and a kill switch. “If anything goes wrong, we need to be able to shut it down immediately,” adds Blom.

 

“If anything goes wrong, we need to be able to shut it down immediately.”

The build work was novel in its own right and sent Blom to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’(IEEE) 2018 International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane, Australia. “We were the only African university represented there, which is a testament to this work being sufficiently novel and interesting,” says Patel.

The first step

Baleka was designed with a purpose in mind: to be capable of demonstrating specific transient movements. “That means how high it can jump and how repetitively it can do that,” according to Blom.

The team: Dr Amir Patel (left) with Callen Fisher and Alexander Blom
The team: Dr Amir Patel (left) with Callen Fisher and Alexander Blom.

But that’s just the first step. The team is now going to use the work that went into Baleka to develop a quadruped robot for testing how the spine is used in transient motion.

“Alex has designed a leg that can handle a range of motion with a spine attached to it. Now we’re going to build on that to identify the optimal spine to support rapid acceleration and deceleration,” says Fisher, who will be doing that research as part of his PhD.

Baleka will also be put to further use. Stacey Shield, another PhD student on Patel’s team, will use the robot to test how arms affect motion. Specifically, she’ll look at the role of arms in stopping and how arms can assist with acceleration.

Beyond robotics

It’s research that contributes to robotics but has applications in other disciplines too. Fields like sports science can benefit from this work, as the robots enable researchers to conduct testing that’s difficult to do with human volunteers.

 

“Our lab is quite popular with students who get really excited about seeing what they’re studying come to life.”

“With a robot, we can tell it not to use its arms at a very specific point or give it a specific time to initiate a breaking manoeuvre,” Patel explains. “The hope is that our work will not only result in novel robotic applications, but also serve as platforms for biomechanics to better understand the way humans and animals move.”

The team’s work also has the potential to excite the next generation of researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The lab often welcomes groups of young students who get a first-hand look at the robots in action. It’s a concrete way to demonstrate science, says Patel, which can inspire their future.

“Our lab is quite popular with students who get really excited about seeing what they’re studying come to life,” says Patel. “It’s a tangible way to show them that maths and physics can contribute to something useful and exciting.”


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.


Next Generation Professoriate (NGP)

 

The Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) is a mid-career academic staff development and support programme. Funded by the vice-chancellor’s Strategic Funds, the NGP addresses demographic inequalities in the academic hierarchy. The goal is to help members become associate and full professors.

The NGP was officially launched in September 2015. By the end of 2018, four of its members had been promoted to full professor and a further 14 had reached the rank of associate professor.

The programme is led by Dr Robert Morrell, who has over 35 years of academic experience in South African universities. He has a B1-rating from the the National Research Foundation (NRF) and is an elected member of the Academy of Sciences in South Africa.

 

Newsletters


August 2019 12:31, 17 September 2019
January 2019 09:20, 21 January 2019
October 2018 09:20, 10 October 2018
August 2018 16:00, 3 August 2018
April 2018 14:15, 20 April 2018
February 2018 18:00, 10 February 2018
October 2017 12:00, 10 October 2017
May 2017 09:30, 9 May 2017
March 2017 12:00, 5 March 2017
January 2017 12:00, 30 January 2017

 
 

In the news





New commerce research unveiled, TED-style The commerce faculty’s Cape Town Alumni Chapter recently hosted the second in the UCT Talks series, a TED-styled showcase of new faculty research. 04 Oct 2018
Ed February wins Hamilton Naki Award Associate Professor Edmund February has been honoured for “achieving world-class research performance despite considerable challenges”. 29 Sep 2018
Put yourself out there, urges Mbatani With a goal of professional and self-development, senior lecturer Dr Nomonde Mbatani has joined UCT’s Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) programme. 04 Jul 2018
First fruits of Fogarty HIV-TB training programme It’s onward and upward for the Fogarty HIV-associated TB Training Program, which has provided vital training to postgraduates in its first year of operation. 12 Jun 2018
Take the gap: A professor in training A TV interview with Tim Noakes introduced Livingstone high-schooler Yumna Albertus to a career in sport and science. Now she’s training for a bigger target. 05 Jun 2018
Negotiating learning and identity The lived experiences of working-class and rural black students are the subject of a new book edited by Dr Bongi Bangeni and Associate Professor Rochelle Kapp. 19 Dec 2017
Dust storm Mars rover mission How do you drive the Mars rover? In a first-for-Africa mission, UCT student Samuel Anih piloted the rover using something slightly surprising. 15 Aug 2017
Failure to recognise religious marriages in South Africa may point to a lack of political will South Africa’s constitution allows for laws to be passed that recognise religious and traditional marriages as well as personal and family law systems. These are systems that regulate marriage, divorce, matters affecting children - including guardianship, custody, access, maintenance and inheritance. 15 May 2017
The power and politics of prefixes Using the correct prefixes when referring to local languages in English is a matter of both linguistic and political necessity, says UCT linguist Dr Mantoa Motinyane-Masoko. 13 Mar 2017
Success for Next Generation Professoriate Four candidates from the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) have been promoted to professor or associate professor level in the most recent round of ad hominem promotions. 03 Mar 2017
Tackling diseases with numbers Dr Freedom Gumedze (UCT Department of Statistical Sciences) and Professor Jane Hutton (University of Warwick) recently hosted a workshop on multivariate longitudinal and survival data analysis in medical research. 16 Feb 2017
Back by popular demand In a meeting held in Benin last year, Dr Heather Marco, a member of UCT's Next Generation Professoriate, was elected for the third consecutive time to serve on the executive committee of AGNES (the African–German Network of Excellence in Science). 18 Jan 2017
Iconic conifers under threat A team of UCT ecologists has used repeat photography to study the decline of the critically endangered Clanwilliam cedar. Their findings, published last month, suggest that climate change and more frequent fires are threatening the survival of this iconic conifer. 21 Dec 2016
The battle to recovery It was while compiling research on sexual violence for her doctoral dissertation that Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma realised that she needed to write a book. 30 Nov 2016
Samuel Ginsberg: The power of collaboration UCT electrical engineer and senior lecturer Samuel Ginsberg has had a hand in inventing such diverse devices as a heat detector for informal settlements. 28 Oct 2016
Let researchers try new paths Dr Tolu Oni (School of Public Health and Family Medicine), together with 3 of her colleagues, has contributed to an article published in Nature journal, arguing that scientists should be allowed to shift their focus in pursuit of important research. 26 Oct 2016
Prestigious fellowship for Gumedze Dr Freedom Gumedze of the Department of Statistical Sciences has been awarded a Newton Advanced Fellowship from the Royal Society, in partnership with the Academy of Medical Sciences, for the period 2016–2019. 25 Oct 2016
Mont Fleur writing retreat From 17–19 August 2016 members of the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) cohort gathered again at the beautiful site of Mont Fleur situated in the Blaauwklippen Valley outside Stellenbosch. 24 Aug 2016
Balancing culture and career Dr Ameeta Jaga always regarded herself as a liberated Indian woman. But once she delved into the literature of culture and the work–family interface, she became aware of the many ways in which that was less true. 18 Aug 2016
Duma is a nursing Hall-of-Famer Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma of the Division of Nursing and Midwifery at UCT, and founding director of the university's Sexual Assault Response Team, was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Research Excellence in Nursing by the Forum of University Nursing Deans in South Africa (FUNDISA) on 22 July 2016. 04 Aug 2016
Professors are made by hard work Robert Morrell, Director of the Next Generation Professoriate, writes in the Mail & Guardian that professors are made rather than born. 14 Jul 2016
Next Generation Professoriate member receives PhD Dr Lee-Ann Tong, senior lecturer in commercial law at UCT and a member of the Next Generation Professoriate, graduated with a doctoral degree in June 2016. 30 Jun 2016
Authentic leadership for changing times For members of the Next Generation Professoriate, who will be future leaders at UCT, Vanessa Lowndes recently facilitated three conversations that focused on leading teams and building organisational culture in changing times. 24 Jun 2016
Next Generation Professoriate – autumn update This update on the progress and activities of the first cohort of the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) features two major events – Manya Mooya's book launch and the Zevenwacht writing retreat. 24 May 2016
Cheetah's tail a blueprint for manoeuvrability in robots Robotics designer Dr Amir Patel is one of six UCT scholars who received a Claude Leon Merit Award for 2016. 12 May 2016
Tolullah Oni: promoting science and research to develop Africa Tolullah (Tolu) Oni's passion for public health stem from a desire to study medicine from an early age. 11 May 2016
Margaret Orr and the Academic Game How does one get ahead in a university where the rules of the game are often not clear? Margaret Orr gave a seminar to the Next Generation Professoriate on 10 March 2016. 18 Mar 2016
Lively debate on transformation in law The legal fraternity and interested public enjoyed a lively debate about the intersections between race, law and transformation on 23 January in the Golden Arrow studio at the Baxter Theatre Centre. Near the end, a passionate exchange between a judge, his fellow panellists and members of the audience threw into sharp relief some of the issues that had been discussed up to that point. 04 Mar 2016
Building a pipeline for UCT's professors of the future The Next Generation Professoriate is a UCT programme aimed at advancing the development of black and female academics. 05 Feb 2016
The cohort at Mont Fleur For two days in early December, members of the Next Generation Professoriate were on a writing retreat at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch. This is a glorious spot at the foot of the Helderberg mountains. 17 Dec 2015
A next generation lunch In November 2015, the Next Generation Professoriate cohort had its first lunch at the UCT Club. 17 Nov 2015
Meet the cohort members With the Next Generation Professoriate initiative UCT hopes to advance the development of black academics by furnishing cohort members with greater clarity in their career paths and providing targeted support to them. The names of the 34 cohort members were recently made known. Learn more about them through their bios. 05 Oct 2015
'Next generation' professors unveiled The Next Generation Professoriate initiative will ensure that the pipeline to transform the professoriate is expanded and accelerated. 01 Oct 2015
Next Generation Professoriate initiative at UCT UCT has launched the Next Generation Professoriate initiative as part of its efforts to address the paucity of senior black academics. 30 Sep 2015
Recruit, develop, retain An institutional culture based on trust, respect and appreciation is what DVC Professor Francis Petersen hopes will come from a new programme aimed at academic staff. 28 Sep 2015

 
TOP