This article focuses on a computer in downtown Manhattan that is displaying a robotics designer’s latest creation in action. Fashioned to look like an armored knight, the mechanical man in this three-dimensional simulation sits up, waves its arms, moves its head on a flexible neck, and opens and closes its hands and its jaw, all in smooth, precise motions. The robot could be used in a new motion picture, museum, or amusement park. Its original designer, however, never heard of movies, computers, or Wait Disney: The robot sprang from the mind of Leonardo da Vinci. Most Renaissance-era designers took a practical approach to mechanics, viewing each machine as a universal entity to be applied as a whole. Leonardo, however, used a revolutionary method of analysis that involved dissecting machines into individual components or “organs” and establishing how many essential parts exist; pulleys, chains, pinions, shock absorbers, springs, and friction bearings were just some of the elements he discovered to be common in many different machines. Leonardo’s studies have influenced and inspired Rossheim greatly in his current robotics designs. Leonardo followed the Renaissance ideal of “man as the measure,” the standard for which the world was designed.
A computer in downtown Manhattan is displaying a robotics designer's latest creation in action. Fashioned to look like an armored knight, the mechanical man in this three-dimensional simulation sits up, waves its arms, moves its head on a flexible neck, and opens and closes its hands and its jaw, all in smooth, precise motions. An inside view of the machine reveals a complex system of cables and gears. The robot could be used in a new motion picture, museum, or amusement park. Its original designer, however, never heard of movies, computers, or Wait Disney: The robot sprang from the mind of Leonardo da Vinci.
The computer model made its public debut recently with the New York stop of "Mechanical Marvels: Invention in the Age of Leonardo," an exhibition on an . international tour. In the Liberty Street Gallery of the World Financial Center, the designs for the automaton appear alongside another imitation of nature, Leonardo's flying machine. While the latter device is more well known, the robot is no less impressive in its inner workings and its approach toward mechanical engineering.
This "anthrobot"-a robot that mimics the human body and its motions-would seem to be a logical result of Leonardo's wide-ranging studies during the Renaissance not only of mechanics but also of human anatomy and kinesiology, yet the design was overlooked for centuries. In the 1950s, Carlo Pedretti, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, proposed that certain drawings in Leonardo's notebooks were actually plans for a robot. Four decades later, Mark Rossheim, president of the Minneapolis-based robotics-design firm Ross-Hime Designs, examined these and other drawings further, and recognized the components of a cable-transmission system that could automatically control the movement of articulated limbs.
Rossheim then worked with the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy, to create computer models to determine whether Leonardo's sketches could work. The simulations "made clear that these were drawings for a mechanical man, able to make a series of motions," said exhibit curator Paolo Galluzzi, director of the institute and museum.
According to Galluzzi, the robot was designed around 1495-before Leonardo began his painting The Last Supper-probably for a theatrical festival in Milan, Italy. These festivals "were common at the end of the 15th century, with special effects such as moving mountains or flying people," he said. For such a spectacle of mechanical motion, the robot would have been dressed in a German- Italian suit of armor typical for the period and crafted from wood, leather, and brass or bronze. The warrior may also have generated its own automated drum music during its "dance."
"The design was very ingenious," Rossheim said, "so much so that at first the pulley system [Leonardo used] wasn't obvious to me." The robot consisted of two independent systems: three-degree-of-freedom legs, ankles, knees, and hips; and four-degree-of- freedom arms with articulated shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands. The arms were positioned so they could perform whole- arm grasping, which means that all the joints moved in unison. Within the torso of the robot was a mechanical, analog-programmable controller, which incorporated a rotating cylindrical, grooved cam. This cam triggered high- torque worm gears, attached to a central pulley, to drive the arms.
The prime mover of the robot could have been a falling weight or a water wheel hidden in a separate room. In either case, power for the entire device was transferred to a central shaft, perhaps splined, that also enabled the robot to stand and sit in a straight vertical motion. The external crank arrangement helped drive the legs, and was connected to key locations in the ankle, knee and hip.
Many elements of this machine would most likely not be found in modern robots-pulleys, for example, drove Leonardo's invention, while today more-more-complex actuators would be located right next to each "muscle" of an anthrobot- but the design is very contemporary, according to Rossheim. "Designers are still very much into designing cable-operated robots, such as for medical and nuclear robots," he said. "Also, cams are still used to drive today's simple robots."
The designs-which Rossheim called the equivalent of current-day "napkin sketches"-and the 3-D simulation show the robot to be very feasible. Leonardo experts, however, can only theorize for now that the device was actually built. "The finished robot drawings were plundered at some point in time," Rossheim said , and remain among approximately 14,000 missing pages of Leonardo's work.
The Anatomy of Machines
Those pages represent just a fraction of Leonardo's work as an engineer, artist, architect, and innovator. And while the automaton was created in the middle of his career-Leonardo died in 1519-the robot designs could be considered a culmination of much of his work.
Most Renaissance-era designers took a practical approach to mechanics, viewing each machine as a universal entity to be applied as a whole. Leonardo, however, used a revolutionary method of analysis that involved dissecting machines into individual components or "organs" and establishing how many essential parts exist; pulleys, chains, pinions, shock absorbers, springs, and friction bearings were just some of the elements he discovered to be common in many different machines. "According to Leonardo, the number of different machines is infinite," Galluzzi said, "but if you think of the components and elementary parts, there's a limited number of mechanisms." Once these elements of machines were determined, "you believe that any type of derived motion is possible."
The same method of study was applied to the human body, whose elements Leonardo viewed as highly sophisticated mechanical devices: "Although human ingenuity in various inventions with different instruments yields the same ends," he wrote, "it will never devise an invention either more beautiful , easier, or rapidly than does Nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous."
Leonardo's studies revealed to him that the most complex mechanism anywhere was the human body. His drawings of the body are as detailed as any engineering diagrams then or now; the walls of one section of "Mechanical Marvels" are lined with Leonardo's exploded views and multiple sketches of arm and leg joints and muscles, the heart, and other parts. This man-machine analogy is a recurring theme throughout his anatomical studies.
Leonardo was also passionate about automation. Unlike engineers of earlier generations, who made some attempts at simple automation, and Renaissance designers who use d natural energy such as water wheels to relieve man from labor, Leonardo believed in automation as a philosophy, Galluzzi noted; he " really believed man should use his brains, not his hands. In that sense, he's a prophet of automation.
"The robot and automation form the most advanced project," Galluzzi added, "to show the reproduction of nature. [They] give us a clear idea of how Leonardo was thinking, of how it was possible to imitate nature, the creator of the most advanced machine: the body of man."
Using Leonardo's original designs and today's technology, that attempt to copy and honor nature has been reproduced in computer models. "We hope to develop a physical re-creation of the robot," Rossheim said , to showcase its original designer's innovations. A full -scale model for museum exhibitions would cost at least $500,000, especially because "you have lots of precision mechanics that need to be done only for one piece," Galluzzi said. Hoping to find a sponsor for the project, Rossheim added that "we have the beginnings of the design, but you have to lay it out in CAD and soon." Also needed is a 15th century suit of armor, which won't come cheap.
Rossheim's research has revealed that the designs in "Mechanical Marvels" represent just one of a series of robots that Leonardo developed. Using his expertise in robotics, the Minneapolis-based designer has also uncovered plans for an autonomous mobile robot with rack-and-pinion steering and a hydraulically powered bell ringer for a clock. "There's a whole new level of sophistication to his work that no one is yet familiar with," he added.
Leonardo in the 20th Century
Leonardo's studies have influenced and inspired Rossheim greatly in his current robotics designs. Leonardo followed the Renaissance ideal of "man as the measure," the standard for which the world was designed. However, most robotic devices now in use are built not like humans but more like machine tools with their bulkier, less flexible kinematics and joints. According to Rossheim, this has resulted in devices that have trouble exploring space and moving with dexterity.
His company's robots instead have been crafted following the principles of anthrobots as Galluzzi put it, to " simulate the sweetness and roundness of the human machine rather than simple machines." Rossheim's most recent design-which was created with colleagues Ken Merdan, John Kivisto, and Matt Shedlov is a 43-axis, electrically powered robotic surrogate, comprised of a torso and two arms capable of humanlike flexibility along its shoulder blades, spine, and hands. The surrogate, commissioned by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, could be used for such tasks as space- station construction and interplanetary exploration.
"We used Leonardo's anatomy drawings and kinesiology studies as the basis of the kinematic theory for the NASA robot," Rossheim said . The rob o t 's five-axis shoulders, for example, replicate the motion and high dexterity of the human shoulder, with a new singularity-free double universal joint mimicking the skeleton's double-ball-and socket design. These breakthroughs took several years to achieve, he noted, but were realized after he studied two of Leonardo 's notebooks. With 500 years separating the innovators, Rossheim "didn't use his technology in the designs but did use the same foundations."
Leonardo's research into all matters mechanical and biological could serve as a guide for industrial design in the future. "Engineers can learn from Leonardo 's synergistic approach to solving problems by drawing on several fields of knowledge," Rossheim said. "There's so much more out there than the perspective given in engineering schools."
Another benefit of exploring the work of Leonardo, his peers, and his predecessors such as through the "Mechanical Marvels" exhibition-is to help engineers discover the cultural tradition behind their jobs, according to Galluzzi. "Today [the profession] is considered too much practical and not enough cultural. The exhibit is helping technical people recover the idea that engineers were no different than artists in the Renaissance," creating drawings that were both mechanical specifications and works of art.
"Creation," Galluzzi added, "is not simply a matter of mechanics but aesthetics as well."