Why There's A Rideable 4,000-Pound Spider-Robot Being Built In Somerville
Last October, Dan Cody and James Whong got an email from their friend and fellow Olin College of Engineering graduate Gui Cavalcanti. The email, according to Whong, said simply, “I want to build a giant [expletive] hexapod” – a six-legged robot.
Not much else needed to be said.
Fast forward almost one year later, and the trio co-founded Project Hexapod, which is now raising money on their Kickstarter page. Based out of a workspace in Somerville called Artisan’s Asylum (of which Gui is the president of), Project Hexapod is an online blog that is documenting the progress of the Robotics Intensive: Rideable Hexapod class taught at the Asylum. The team consists of one teaching assistant, 15 students and the co-founders themselves who instruct the class. And, of course, Stompy — their final product.
“Stompy is a giant, rideable six-legged robot,” Cavalcanti explained. “It seats two people, it’s 135 horsepower, it’s meant to walk over whatever it doesn’t like, and we’re building it as a giant open-source project to release to the world.”
What he didn’t mention is that it’s also supposed to weigh 4,000 pounds and measures about 18-feet wide and 10-feet tall. In other words, a behemoth of a machine.
How much of a behemoth? Here’s an idea: the propane-fired engine that powers the hexapod was ripped out of the hydraulic unit of a 10,000-pound forklift. Each leg weighs about 200 pounds without the actuators. And just the small chunk of metal that links the body to the thigh weighs 70 pounds. As the team said in their introductory presentation, “this machine will not move to you, it will move through you.”
So why build it?
Both Whong and Cavalcanti have a background working for a high-end military robotics company, and Cody works for a company that makes robotic arms. The decision to build Stompy was born out of a desire to build something, not for other people or other companies, but for them personally, and the people they are working with.
“We wanted it to be a thing that walks in parades and makes little kids smile,” Cavalcanti said. “[It] has no other purpose than to really be cool, to show off a lot of really awesome tech, and inspire people. That’s its job.”
“It’s inspiring to someone else who had some grand vision but was like ‘No, I can’t. I’m not going to be able to pull it off’,” Cody added. “I think demonstrating and sharing methods can be very powerful for aiding other projects.” Though the team conceived of the idea for no other reason than to be “cool,” they do readily acknowledge some of its more practical applications. That’s where Stompy’s design comes in.
Stompy is designed as a hexapod, which means it has six legs, allowing three legs to remain on the ground at all times. And because three legs form a tripod, the machine will inherently be stable, eliminating the fear of it falling over. Having six legs also means it can climb over things, and that’s where the team sees some real practical use. Take a situation like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In the course of a few minutes, Port-au-Prince was demolished.
It took three years to clean up the rubble and debris from certain areas, and that means for three years supply trucks couldn’t get to those places. With Stompy, “you have a technology that allows you to walk over this rubble in the first place, it’s all of a sudden an answer of how to get anything in or out of a disaster-hit area,” Cavalcanti said. “We think that’s pretty cool.”
Right now, Stompy is under construction. They’ve got the basic design down, and they’ve already tested the mechanics for one of the legs. It’s a half-scale model they affectionately call “Gimpy.” Stompy is expected to be built fully this winter, and the first demo will take place in April. In the mean time, take a look at the project’s Kickstarter page. If they reach $300,000 they will start building a zoo worth of rideable robots. And that, they say, is no joke.