Lightweight 130 kilo walking robot tows aircraft weighing more than three tons

Robots conquered intralogistics long ago. Now the hydraulically-powered HyQReal walking robot has proven its performance capability at Genoa Airport by pulling a small Piaggio passenger aircraft about 30 times its own weight.
They are part of everyday life at any commercial airport: the flat, wide and heavy power packs that push the aircraft back from the gate to the taxiway, or tow them across the tarmac from the parking area to the maintenance hangar. These Air System Tractors, often simply called “pushers”, have a powerful diesel engine and tires that are often as tall as the entire vehicle. Together with several heavy ballast weights, these provide the best possible traction.

The HyQReal hydraulic robot, however, is only around 1.30 meters in length, stands at just 90 centimeters tall and weighs a mere 130 kilograms. At Genoa airport, HyQReal has now proven that it has what it takes to be a pusher. The robot effortlessly got a Piaggio P180 passenger aircraft moving, with a tare weight of 3,300 kilograms (take-off weight 5,239 kilograms) and a wingspan of around 14 meters.

“Pulling an aircraft gives us an impressive opportunity to demonstrate the strength, power autonomy and optimized design of our robot,” says Claudio Semini proudly. He is leading the project at the Italian Institute of Technology (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, or IIT for short) based in Genoa. “We wanted to achieve something no one had ever done before, and we succeeded.”

The HyQReal team at IIT, which is also financially supported by an EU project, consists of 14 international researchers in total. They come from Italy, Switzerland, Brazil, the UK, Canada, Egypt, the Netherlands and Mexico.

The HyQReal, reminiscent of an oversized insect, indeed provides impressive traction in relation to the weight of the Piaggio. This is made possible by the robot’s four “legs”, each of which has a customized “foot” fitted with special rubber for particularly good grip. A 48-volt battery supplies four electric motors, which in turn drive four hydraulic pumps to implement the motion sequence of each individual leg. An on-board computer takes care of the optical navigation, a second coordinates movement.

“We wanted to achieve something that no one had ever done before – and we succeeded.”

Claudio Semini, Project Leader at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (ITT) in Genoa

“We wanted to achieve something that no one had ever done before – and we succeeded.”

Claudio Semini, Project Leader at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (ITT) in Genoa

The experts at IIT have been researching hydraulically powered “quadruped” robots since 2007. Their long-term goal is to develop hardware, software and algorithms for robust vehicles so that they can be used primarily on rough terrain, such as in agriculture, natural disasters or to inspect nuclear power plants. Now there is another potential application: recovering damaged aircraft.

Compared to the previous versions, with its on-board hydraulics, battery capacity and wireless communication, HyQReal has been developed for completely autonomous operation. One of the major development partners was Moog Inc. based in New York, a globally active manufacturer and integrator of components and systems for precision control, primarily in the aerospace industry.

Since September 2016, IIT and Moog have been working together on the next generation of hydraulic robots that move on four legs. For the HyQReal, Moog developed almost all of the hydraulic systems, including pumps, pressure distributors and servo drives. The focus was on energy efficiency and high performance. IIT was responsible for the overall development of the hardware and software for the robot, primarily including the design of the torso and legs, the concept for the electronics and the configuration of the sensors.

In terms of construction, the HyQReal consists of an aluminum roll cage and a casing made out of Kevlar and glass fiber reinforced plastic. It is not only the robot’s appearance that is reminiscent of an insect – creepy-crawlies also provided a model for the ability to move objects 30 times their own body weight. After all, that is what ants are known for.

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Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos by IIT

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