Virginia Tech®home

TREC: Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls



TREC (The Terrestrial Robotics Engineering & Controls Lab) at Virginia Tech was founded to study cutting edge mechanics and controls in order to create robotic platforms to change the way the world perceives robotics. We believe through the design and development of fieldable robotic platforms, we can revolutionize the role robots play both in disaster response scenarios and daily life.

We have developed the worlds first fire fighting humanoid robot through the Office of Naval Research’s Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) program, and are continuing to develop its capabilities. We also competed as one of the only Track A University teams at in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals as Team Valor. We are even developing what will be one of the world’s first fully balancing exoskeleton as part of the National Robotics Initiative.

Team VALOR is fielding ESCHER (Electric Series Compliant Humanoid for Emergency Response) a full sized humanoid designed, fabricated, and assembled by students at Virginia Tech. ESCHER is being designed to support a variety of disaster response and search-and-rescue tasks that will allow robots to bear the burden of dangerous environments instead of humans. The robot performs many tasks autonomously while still allowing for human interaction in critical areas.


ESCHER is an electro-mechanical robot measuring 1.7 m high but remains lightweight at 75 kg. Its efficient design permits untethered operation for extended periods. The robot uses a multi-spectral vision suite to create a virtual environment in a range of severe, harsh conditions. Virtual environment information is used in simulation to perform path and manipulation planning, while actual locomotion and manipulation is conducted mostly autonomously with low level control. Software development is a collaboration with Team ViGIR.

Through funding provided by the National Robotics Initiative and under the advisement of Dr. Alan Asbeck, TREC is designing and building a Orthotic Lowerbody Locomotion Exoskeleton (OLL-E). While the accomplishments of modern day commercial exoskeletons is nothing short of amazing, they often fall short of providing true mobility, as most require the wearer to balance using crutches. This places an undue burden on the wearer, limiting their ability to walk and interact with their environment. Additionally, this loading of the shoulders is unnatural, and can cause harm over time. By combining TREC’s proven design abilities with their research into humanoid walking and mobility, we hope to design and build a platform free from these limitations, so that those suffering from limited mobility are able to move beyond wheel chairs, hands free.

THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot)

The Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot (THOR) is a 33 degree of freedom robot capable of compliant, force controlled walking. THOR was originally built for the Office of Naval Research’s Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) program, and then was the original entrant of Team VALOR for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. THOR has been noted as the first bipedal in the world to extinguish a fire. This represented the final challenge of Phase I of the SAFFiR program.

Designed by a team of TREC engineers, THOR was manufactured almost entirely in TREC’s in house machine shop. Building off the prototype legs, the twelve degrees of freedom in the legs are actuated entirely by custom linear series elastic actuators. This allows THOR to use custom impedance control algorithms in each of these actuators to achieve compliant force-controlled motion. These algorithms are implemented on custom dual axis motor controllers designed in house. By using an inverted Hoeckens Linkage in the knees and hip pitches and parallelly actuated hip roll-yaws and ankle pitch-rolls, THOR is capable of super human ranges of motion, making it a versatile platform, capable of many human-like tasks.

Using a control architecture designed and written in house, THOR represents one of the few humanoids in the world capable of whole-body task-space control. This allows THOR to robustly achieve multiple motion tasks, such as maintaining balance, remaining upright, and handle a fire hose. By combining whole-body momentum control with impedance controlled joints, THOR is also capable of walking across a variety of unknown terrains, including grass, gravel, and brick. Videos of some of the few  THOR is capable of can be found on our YouTube channel!

TREC features a fully equipped in house machine shop. The versatility this has given us is critical for the design and manufacture of TREC’s custom robots. Our equipment includes a 3-axis Hurco Vertical Machining Center, 3-axis Tormach 1100 personal CNC machine and Baleigh digital lathe. We also have a personal laser cutter, band saw, and drill press, as well as a fully furnished electronics maintenance area. Our mechanical focused students gain knowledge not only on design, but also manufacture and production of cutting edge robots. We believe that this unique focus on the entire robotics process gives us the ability to not just make some of the most advanced robots in the world, but also makes us better at debugging and improving our existing platforms.

Alexander Leonessa

Alexander Leonessa
Professor, Lab Director

147 Durham Hall - 0710
1145 Perry Street
Blacksburg, VA 24061