Researchers Squeeze Out a New Breed of Robot Locomotion

Researchers have been playing around with various oddball forms of robot locomotion; surely, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? Not so! Lucky for us, [researchers at Stanford] are now showing us a new way for robots to literally extrude themselves from point A to point B.

This robot’s particular motion for mechanism involves unwinding itself inside out. From a stationary base, a reel caches meters of the robot’s uninflated polyethylene body, which it deploys by pressurizing. Researchers can make full 3D turns by varying the amount of inflated air in outer control chambers. What’s more, they can place end effectors or even payloads at the tip of the growing end with their position held in place by a cable.

As we can imagine, any robot that can squeeze its way up to 72 meters long can have dozens of applications, and the folks at Stanford have explored a host of nooks and crannies of this space. Along the way, they deploy complex antenna shapes into the air, deliver small payloads, extinguish fires, and squeeze through all sorts of uninviting places such as flytraps and even a bed of nails. We’ve placed a video below the break, but have a look at Ars Technica’s full video suite to get a sense of the sheer variety of applications that they imparted upon their new creation.

Biomimetics tends to get us to cry “gecko feet” or “snake robots” without thinking too hard. But these forms of locomotion that come to mind all seem to derive from the animal kingdom. One key element of this soft robot is that its stationary base and vine-like locomotion both have its roots in the plant kingdom. It’s a testament to just how unexplored this realm may be, and that researchers and robots will continue to develop new ways of artificially “getting around” for years to come.

Thanks for the tip, [Jacob!]

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Earth Rovers Explore Our Own Planet

While Mars is currently under close scrutiny by NASA and other space agencies, there is still a lot of exploring to do here on Earth. But if you would like to explore a corner of our own planet in the same way NASA that explores Mars, it’s possible to send your own rover to a place and have it send back pictures and data for you, rather than go there yourself. This is what [Norbert Heinz]’s Earth Explorer robots do, and anyone can drive any of the robots to explore whatever locations they happen to be in.

A major goal of the Earth Explorer robot is to be easy to ship. This is a smaller version of the same problem the Mars rovers have: how to get the most into a robot while having as little mass as possible. The weight is kept to under 500g, and the length, width, and height to no more than 90cm combined. This is easy to do with some toy cars modified to carry a Raspberry Pi, a camera, and some radios and sensors. After that, the robots only need an interesting place to go and an Internet connection to communicate with Mission Control.

[Norbert] is currently looking for volunteers to host some of these robots, so if you’re interested head on over to the project page and get started. If you’d just like to drive the robots, though, you can also get your rover fix there as well. It’s an interesting project that will both get people interested in exploring Earth and in robotics all at the same time. And, if you’d like to take the rover concept beyond simple exploration, there are other machines that can take care of the same planet they explore.

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A Robot That Can Still Keep Its Balance After A Night In The Pub

One of the star attractions at the recent bring-a-hack prior to our London unconference was [Dan]’s two-wheeled self-balancing robot. As the assorted masses of the Hackaday readership consumed much fine ale and oohed and ahhed over each others work, there it stood on a pub table, defying all attempts to topple it.

In a way a successful self-balancer can look surprisingly unexciting because it achieves the seemingly unimpressive task of just standing there and not doing much except trundling about, but to take such a superficial view belies the significant feat of engineering that gives the self-balancer its party trick. And it’s no mean achievement to create one from fairly basic hardware, so how has he done it?

The 3D-printed frame holds a pair of stepper motors to do the hard work, while a piece of stripboard acts as carrier for boards containing the MPU6050 accelerometer and DRV8825 stepper motor drivers. Meanwhile the brains of the whole show started as an Espruino Pico but has since been moved to an ESP32.

There is a linked GitHub repository with all the code, and if our description of seeing it in a London pub isn’t good enough for you then you can see it in action in the video below.

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Pulleys within Pulleys form a Unique Transmission for Robots

After a couple of millennia of fiddling with gears, you’d think there wouldn’t be much new ground to explore in the field of power transmission. And then you see something like an infinitely variable transmission built from nested pulleys, and you realize there’s always room for improvement.

The electric motors generally used in robotics can be extremely efficient, often topping 90% efficiency at high speed and low torque. Slap on a traditional fixed-ratio gearbox, or change the input speed, and efficiency is lost. An infinitely variable transmission, like [Alexander Kernbaum]’s cleverly named Inception Drive, allows the motor to stay at peak efficiency while smoothly changing the gear ratio through a wide range.

The mechanism takes a bit of thought to fully grok, but it basically uses a pair of split pulleys with variable spacing. The input shaft rotates the inner pulley eccentrically, which effectively “walks” a wide V-belt around a fixed outer pulley. This drives the inner pulley at a ratio depending on the spacing of the pulley halves; the transmission can shift smoothly from forward to reverse and even keep itself in neutral. The video below will help you get your head around it.

We’ve seen a couple of innovative transmissions around here lately; some, like this strain-wave gear and this planetary gearbox, are amenable to 3D printing. Looks like the Inception Drive could be printed too. Hackers, start your printers and see what this drive can do.

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Cronk The Gonk Droid

The ‘Gonk’ droids from the Star Wars universe are easy to overlook, but serve the important function of mobile power generators. Here on Earth, [bithead942]’s life-size replica droid fulfills much the same purpose.

Cronk — functionally an oversized USB charging hub with a lot of bells and whistles — is remotely controlled by a modified Wii Nunchuck very controller similar to the one [bithead942] used to control his R2-D2. With the help of an Adafruit Audio FX Mini, an Adafruit Class D 20W amp, and two four-inch speakers, the droid can rattle off some sound effects as it blows off some steam(really, an inverted CO2 duster). An Arduino Mega acts as Cronk’s brain while its body is sculpted from cast-able urethane foam for its light weight and rigidity. It also houses a FPV camera, mic, and DVR so it can be operated effectively from afar.

And, it can dance!

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Winch Bot Records Hacks and Cats

Some people are better than others when it comes to documenting their hacks. Some people, like [Micah Elizabeth Scott], aka [scanlime], set the gold standard with their recordings. Hacking sessions with the Winch Bot have been streamed regularly throughout the build and this is going to lead to a stacking effect in her next projects because the Winch Bot was designed to record hacking sessions. Hacking video inception anyone? Her Winch Bot summary video is after the break.

The first part of this build, which she calls the Tuco Flyer, was [Micah Elizabeth Scott]’s camera gimbal hack which we already covered and is a wonderful learning experience in itself. She refers to the gimbal portion as the “flyer” since it can move around. The Winch Bot contains the stationary parts of the Tuco Flyer and control where the camera will be in the room.

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Robot Graffiti

There’s talk of robots and AIs taking on jobs in many different industries. Depending on how much stock you place in that, it might still be fair to say the more creative fields will remain firmly in the hands of humans, right?

Well, we may have some bad news for you. Robots are now painting our murals.

Estonian inventor [Mihkel Joala] — also working at SprayPainter — successfully tested his prototype by painting a 30m tall mural on a smokestack in Tartu, Estonia. The creative procedure for this mural is a little odd if you are used to the ordinary painting process: [Joala] first takes an image from his computer, and converts it into a coordinate grid — in this case, about 1.5 million ‘pixels’. These pixels are painted on by a little cart loaded with five colours of spray paint that are able to portray the mural’s full palette once combined and viewed at a distance. Positioning is handled by a motor at the base of the mural controlling the vertical motion in conjunction with tracks at the top and bottom which handle the horizontal motion.

For this mural, the robot spent the fourteen hours trundling up and down a set of cables, dutifully spraying the appropriate colour at such-and-such a point resulting in the image of a maiden cradling a tree and using thirty cans of spray paint in the process.

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