Around here, we’re always excited about a new actuator design. Linear actuators are particularly hard to make cheap, fast, and good, so it’s even better when something new that we can build ourselves slides onto the scene.
Researchers at U Penn’s Pikul Research Group took inspiration from the cascade of falling dominoes for an innovative take on linear motion. This article on IEEE Spectrum describes the similarity of the sequential tipping-over with the peristaltic motion of biological systems, including you, swallowing right now.
The motion propagation in falling dominoes, called a Soliton Wave, can be harnessed to push an object at the front of the wave, just like a surfer. See the videos after the break for examples of simple setups that any of us could recreate with laser-cut or 3D printed parts. Maybe you won’t be using them to help a robot swallow (a terrifying idea that the article suggests), but you might need a conveyor or a novel way to help a device crawl like a shrimp. The paper is behind a paywall on IEEE, though you readers likely see enough in the videos to get started, and we can’t wait to see where your dominoes will lead us next.
Robots that can dynamically reconfigure themselves to adapt to their environments offer a promising advantage over their less dynamic cousins. Researchers have been working through all the challenges of realizing that potential: hardware, software, and all the interactions in between. On the software end of the spectrum, a team at University of Pennsylvania’s ModLab has been working on a robot that can autonomously choose a configuration to best fit its task at hand.
We’ve recently done an overview of modular robots, and we noted that coordination and control are persistent challenges in this area. The robot in this particular demonstration is a hybrid: a fixed core module serving as central command, plus six of the lab’s dynamic SMORES-EP modules. The core module has a RGB+Depth camera for awareness of its environment. A separate downwards-looking camera watches SMORES modules for awareness of itself.
Combining that data using a mix of open robot research software and new machine specific code, this team’s creation autonomously navigates an unfamiliar test environment. While it can adapt to specific terrain challenges like a wood staircase, there are still limitations on situations it can handle. Kudos to the researchers for honestly showing and explaining how the robot can get stuck on a ground seam, instead of editing that gaffe out to cover it up.
While this robot isn’t the completely decentralized modular robot system some are aiming for, it would be a mistake to dismiss based on that criticism alone. At the very least, it is an instructive step on the journey offering a tradeoff that’s useful on its own merits. And perhaps this hybrid approach will find application with a modular robot close to our hearts: Dtto, the winner of our 2016 Hackaday Prize.
The video was debuted this past week at the TED2012 conference, giving [Daniel Mellinger, Alex Kushleyev, and Vijay Kumar] from the University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab, a chance to show off their amazing robotics work. The team used a set of autonomous quadrotors to play the [James Bond] theme, complete with keyboard, drums, cymbals, guitar, and maracas.
The coordination of the robots undoubtedly took an incredible amount of time to orchestrate, but after watching the video we think it is well worth the effort. Now of course you can’t simply input a piece of sheet music into the quadrotor control system and expect them to play it, but we imagine that time will arrive before you know it!
Continue reading to see the [James Bond] theme song in full, and be sure to swing by the U Penn site to read more about the project.