At Arm's Length
Anthony Fordham
at 13:09 PM Mar 26 2012
At Arm's Length
Six-axis freedom means realistic rolls and crashes
Deakin University
Robots // 

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of Victoria's Deakin University, a gigantic robot arm is shaking a man to death. Or at least, that's how it might look to the untrained eye: a slim human figure strapped to the end of this great mass of steel and hydraulics. But really, this is a new kind of motion simulator, flexible enough to train fixed-wing pilots, helicopter aces, racing drivers and even kayakers.

Most motion simulators take the form of a pod on hydraulic legs. You sit in the pod and get jiggled around according to a computer's response to your control input. The main problem with the pod? It can't flip you upside-down. And it can't submit you to realistic g-forces. Both these things are critical to the training of pilots and drivers alike.

Sit at the end of a giant robot's wrist though, and you can be spun around the "shoulder" like a NASA astronaut in a centrifuge, whipped through the air in an overarm throwing motion, or spun around the wrist joint even as the arm rotates around its base.

Slap on stereoscopic goggles and surround-sound earphones, and you're in one of the most immersive simulation systems ever designed.

Because the arm can be used for driving, flying and boating, its development team - the Centre for Intelligent Systems Research (CISR) - calls it the Universal Motion Simulator. 

The project took three and a half years to build, says CISR director Professor Saeid Nahavandi, and was always intended to be an answer to the "problem of the pod".

"In a traditional pod, what happens if you want to simulate a crash with a roll?" Nahavandi asks. "You have to rely on visual cues to fool the brain. With the arm, we can have more advanced and complex training procedures, and it reduces the risk of motion sickness." 

While CISR has built the first Universal Motion Simulator, the centre now seeks investors to step forward and license the technology. Nahavandi points out that the applications are almost endless.

"Pilot training is the obvious place to start, but there is lots of application for driving simulators and even sports such as kayaking or sailing."

Given the complexity and mad-science scope of the Universal Motion Simulator, it will no doubt find its first home in other labs and with the military. Still, we'd love to see one make it to the arcades.

This story originally appeared in the January issue of Australian Popular Science. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

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