Power Rangers style robots come of age

Power Rangers style robots come of ageRichard Ball
The spider and the earthworm are robots that change shape to slither across rough terrain or stalk across rocks. You certainly know progress is being made when inventions from your childhood comics come to life, writes Alex Mayhew-Smith.
Engineers are already working on creating such a robot at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California. Mechanical engineer Mark Yim is working on a project to produce a morphing robot.
“One design goal of the PolyBot system is to be versatile. By changing its configuration, for example from a snake shape to a spider shape, the robot can do a large variety of tasks. The situations that are most suitable for this type of robot are those in which you don’t have a-priori information. For example, search and rescue in a collapsed building, planetary exploration or undersea exploration,” Yim told Electronics Weekly. “The technology that will allow an adaptable robot comes from its make up.”
The robot changes its shape by attaching and detaching modules, similar to rearranging limbs, explained Yim. “For example if a person joins his hands together then detaches one arm at the shoulder he now has one long arm. This process can go in reverse as well, to make many arms. Or it can make loops or other arbitrary shapes by joining ends of limbs together.”
Each module on the robot has a computer, motor drivers, sensor electronics, power regulation circuitry, and communications so that it may talk to other modules. Yim plans on using the Motorola MPC555 microcontroller with CAN-bus communications between modules.
So far the project has developed a robot that can change shape by itself into two different configurations.
“For example, it rolls like a tractor tread on a level surface; then to go down stairs or over rough ground it unfolds into something that moves more like a snake. So far, the robot has reconfigured itself into only two configurations. It can be manually configured into many more,” said Yim.
The robot currently runs autonomously, but blindly. The project team plans to introduce radio control to the robot in the next four months. “The goal is to have it running autonomously, sensing and reacting to its environment within three years,” said Yim. “This step is very complicated and is the hardest research question we are trying to answer. In addition to having to understand and react to an unstructured environment, the computational architecture is distributed – each module has its own computer.”
Although it will be many years before such a robot could be in commercial use, the project will produce a demonstration robot within three years that will show the types of reconfiguration and locomotion that are possible.
For future robots, the limits are close to endless. The total number of configurations depends on the number and types of modules used in the robot. For 200 modules (which Yim hopes to build in two years) the number of possible configurations could run to millions.

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