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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Future of Robotics is Self-Assembling

The global success of  apps for smartphones has cross-fertilized many Cyber-Physical System (CPS) ideas and concepts including Internet of Things, Internet for Robots and Ambient Intelligence. The next big hype might be apps for self-configuring modular robotsiMoBots. It could work like this: connect to a robot app store, download an app to a modular robot swarm and watch how the robot modules configure into the object of your choice i.e. a watch dog, a music box or a chair. In the future we might only need a "Buck of Stuff" with small, low-cost robot modules, that can connect to each other in a variety of shapes according to design needs and design instructions downloaded from the Internet.

Credit: Modular Robotics
The first commercially availabe robot modules are called Cubelets, developed by Modular Robotics, a  spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University Computational Design lab.
Cubelets are smart modular cube robots that can be snapped together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The cubelets standard kit comes with 20 magnetic blocks in a variety of sensor, logic and actuator blocks, allowing to create simple reconfigurable cube robots that can drive around on a tabletop, respond to light, sound, and temperature, and have surprisingly lifelike behaviors. The Standard Cubelet pack with 20 cubes is available for $300 direct from Modular Robotics. The basic kit includes 20 Cubelets: Action Blocks: 2 Drive, 1 Rotate, 1 Speaker, 1 Flashlight, 1 Bar Graph, Sense Blocks: 1 Knob, 1 Brightness, 2 Distance, 1 Temperature, Think/Utility Blocks: 2 Inverse, 1 Minimum, 1 Maximum, 1 Battery, 2 Passive, 2 Blocker.
The iMobot is a reconfigurable modular robot, developed at the Integration Engineering Lab, at University of California by Prof. Harry H. Cheng, has four controllable degrees of freedom. iMobot is designed for search and rescue operations as well as research and teaching.  iMobot has versatile locomotion including a unique feature of driving as though with wheels and lifting itself into a camera platform.

Credit: UCLA/IE Lab
Researchers at the Biorobotics Lab, EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, are featuring the modular robotics platform Roombots designed to self-assemble into changing, active every-day environment elements, e.g. pieces of furniture. As they have multi-purpose features they can be used to assemble legged robots, like quadruped robots. Modular robot furniture can assemble itself, can change shape over time, move using actuated joints to different locations depending on the users needs. See: IKEA's nightmare

Construction with Quadrotor Teams
The last example is from the the GRASP Lab, University of Pennsylvania, where a team of quadrotors autonomously build tower-like cubic structures from laid out modular parts.

Credit: GRASP Lab

1 comment: said...

I too really believe in self-reconfiguring modular robotics.

I think it has enormous potential, for robotics and for society in general. It can increase development speed in the robotics field.

It can also, which perhaps is more important, be very significant for society in general as it will give us an incredible tool for addressing the many problems we face today, like environmental ones and being able to provide for everybody that today do not have enough.

In fact I believe in SRCMR to the extent that I have a blog and a podcast focusing entirely on the area

The Cubelets standard kit is sadly out of stock right now, but I have ordered a kit and the latest info is that they will ship in April.

When I get them I will hold a competition, where the winner gets tinkering time (I will send the kit to you for free!) so check my blog for more info!

Thanks for a great blog!