The man who builds robotic animals
He develops walking robots that move like living creatures: Marco Hutter is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems and a fellow of the Society in Science. One day his machines might be able to carry out the menial and dangerous work human beings would rather avoid.
Anymal seems a little reluctant though: the latest development to come out of the workshop at ETH’s Robotic Systems Lab moves like a real creature. Thirty-year-old Assistant Professor Hutter gives the robotic dog trotting in front of him a sharp shove; the machine slightly evades to the side before promptly finding its balance again.
Like Anymal, Hutter also seems to have both feet firmly on the ground. He gives the impression of being exactly where he wants to be: at an internationally renown research institute and in a position of some responsibility. His demonstration with Anymal seems almost like a dance between man and machine. And that’s exactly where the innovation lies: the walking robots developed by Hutter and his team at the Robotic Systems Lab have joints that react as flexibly as those of their human or animal counterparts. Anymal can climb stairs, jump and cushion a landing.
Industrial inspections and rescue missions
“We want a robot that can overcome obstacles, move about swiftly and still be tough and energy-efficient,” stresses Hutter, who is in charge of a 12-person research team. StarlETH, the previous star among walking robots, met most of these criteria, but Anymal is much more robust, making it suitable for use in impassable terrain and rough climates. With a total weight of just 30 kg, Anymal can be easily carried and deployed by a single operator, despite its imposing size. Thanks to its incorporated sensors, Anymal maps its surroundings continuously, allowing it to plan and implement its actions completely autonomously.
Hutter is convinced that walking robots could be used in a number of different fields within a few years, specifically at industrial facilities, on search and rescue operations in alpine areas, and in mining; for example, for mine inspections. “The robots will go anywhere that is dangerous for people, or where working conditions are very bad,” explains the mechanical engineering graduate.
Anymal owes its existence in part to the Society in Science funding programme. Hutter was awarded one of the sought-after internationally advertised fellowships in 2014. He will receive CHF 100,000 annually until 2019 for the advancement of his research. “For me, this fellowship was a unique opportunity to develop something that couldn’t be achieved with the ordinary resources,” explains the researcher, originally from eastern Switzerland. It is something in which he invests a lot of enthusiasm – as is made clear by his participation in the ARGOS Challenge, an international competition run by energy company Total to promote the development of autonomous robots for use in inspections of offshore oil and gas sites. Hutter’s research group has just tested Anymal’s practical applicability at the ARGOS Challenge in France.
“Everyone was up and ready to go at six o’clock every morning,” says Hutter. “Even after we got back to our accommodation, we would still carry on working until two o’clock in the morning.” When someone works this much voluntarily, it seems that they may be living out a childhood dream – a more sophisticated version of building with Lego. So, is this the case for Hutter? Childhood photos in a Swiss National Science Foundation publication suggest that he loved assembling, sawing and excavating things even at a young age.
Working at the best university
“It was clear to me quite early on that I wanted to be at ETH,” he says. At school, he was particularly interested in science and computing. Finally, he explains, he decided on mechanical engineering “because it’s such a broad field”. During his studies, he devoted his attention to, inter alia, aerospace and control technology, and later moved on to microrobotics. His focus turned to walking robots only during his Master’s degree.
He has been Assistant Professor of Robotic Systems since October 2015. Student support is a special concern for him, whether through student work or through the ETH tutor system, where each student is assigned a professor as a personal advisor and meets them several times each semester. As a group leader, he also bears a considerable responsibility for his research team: “I have to make sure that our lab produces outstanding work, attracts talented researchers and that I can pay them accordingly. I also have to recognise trends, so that we can be internationally successful.” Is that not very stressful? Hutter shakes his head: “It’s fun. We’re a perfectly coordinated team with outstanding researchers.” For Hutter, it is clear that he will still be working at ETH in 10 years’ time. “In the field of robotics, ETH is one of the best universities in the world – if not the best.”
Robots as football referees
Is there a super robot that Hutter would particularly like to develop? He shakes his head: “Every robot should serve a specific purpose. The ultimate humanoid wouldn’t really be practical.” Hutter is certainly aware of the kinds of worries his machines can trigger – fears of job loss or that robots will be used for military purposes. He is quick to answer: “Any machine can be used for military purposes,” he stresses. It is important to create the necessary legal conditions to prevent abuse. At the same time, society should also be properly prepared for the increasing use of robots. “New technologies have always been a threat to jobs – but at the same time they have also created them and facilitated people’s lives.”
When, like Hutter, your daily life revolves around following your creative instinct, is there such a thing as a life outside the lab? “Of course,” says Hutter with a laugh. That is all he will say though; he’s quite reserved when discussing himself and appears to prefer to stay out of the spotlight. A concrete question, then: does he have a hobby? “Football,” he answers, quick as a shot.
Hutter has played the beautiful game since he was five years old; at the moment he plays for FC Flawil. As it happens, the pitch is an area where human and robot might be able to co-exist peacefully: the former as player, the latter as referee. Humans get to have all the fun, while robots handle the more onerous jobs. That is, after all, the purpose of robots – to do the dirty work.
Society in Science
“Society in Science – The Branco Weiss Fellowship” is a funding programme for post-doctoral scientists, regardless of their origin, their workplace or their area of expertise. The programme was founded and financed by entrepreneur Branco Weiss, who died in 2010. Successful candidates receive a generous fellowship, allowing them to work on an exceptional research topic for a maximum of five years at a location of their choice. The fellowships are awarded by ETH Zurich.