Friday, June 17, 2011

GE's Walking Truck

Hack a day brings to my attention that in the 1960s, General Electric had a project with the military in which they produced Quadrupedal walking armored vehicles, which would be used to transport soldiers and their large amount of very heavy supplies across uneven terrain that trucks and even tanks couldn't cross. The project had mixed results.
Apparently, the vehicle was built, and it did transport people at speeds up to 30 miles per hour for very little fuel, and could deftly walk across surfaces that would flip over a tank. It was even sensitive enough that an operator could gently rest a foot on a lightbulb. (Critics note that the lightbulb was placed on a pillow, rather than a cement floor, which is slightly cheating.)
On the downside, though, the user interface was incredibly poorly conceived, and operators needed WTF breaks every 15 minutes, because everything was controlled with a ludicrious array of levers, which drove people absolutely bonkers. I see an immediate improvement that could be produced.
There are two kinds of quadruped animals whose gaits may prove useful to this machine, and that I could describe. The dog and the horse. I learned the dog's foot habits from my pet dog as a child, which I noticed had two gaits. At slower speeds, a walk, the dog would align feet by sides. So first she would step with her front and rear left feet, then her front and rear right feet. When speeding up, there would be a point at which she would switch gaits to the running gait. With the running gait, the front and rear feet were treated as a set: first the front feet together, then the rear feet together.
In horses, there are three gaits: a walk, a jog, and a run. For the horse's walk, the four feet move completely independent of each other, as if two separate people were walking, one in front of the other. At the jog speed, or trot, legs are moved in diagonal pairs: The left front and right rear, then the right front and left rear. The horse's run resembles the dog's run, except that the feet pairs do not hit the ground at the same time. (There tends to be a slight delay, but the front feet will hit the ground within a half second of each other, while the rear feet will hit the ground a second later, also within a half second of each other.)
With some testing, an embedded computer could be made to copy these gaits in the walking truck, which could allow the operator to move across smoother surfaces in the same manner as driving a truck, taking manual control only when the terrain becomes too rough for automated motion. This would save the driver a lot of WTF breaks.

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