Design News, April 2013

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Source: Information Sciences Institute/USC Viterbi School of Engineering Cover Story Pebble robotic cubes communicate how to align themselves what the task requires and how the robot is structured." to duplicate an object's shape using distributed algorithms. There is no killer app yet for modular, self-reconfiguring First, they form a grid using electropermanent magnets, robots, said Pickem. This is partly because hardware implethen they discard unneeded cubes. The team wants to scale mentations are bulky, unreliable, and available only in small cube size down to 1 mm per side to build thousands of numbers. Their use is mainly targeted to environments with cubes on a silicon wafer using lithography. limited access, or that are otherwise space-limited in some In a centralized architecture way. For example, a search-andone agent plans for all modules, rescue robot could pack itself really but in a decentralized scheme small, get into damaged buildings, every module plans for itself and then expand into a larger form based on information it observes to do more tasks, like lift fallen walls. or gathers by communicat"For example, the robot could enter ing with neighbors. Generally, the building as a snake, and reconlarge numbers of robots can be figure into a shape that can walk or controlled more efficiently with drive on wheels," he said. decentralized control schemes. An aerospace application could In a homogeneous architecbe a modular robot for planetary ture, modules have the same exploration. In home automation, properties, so are interchangethey might be used for reusable and able and can be replaced easily, The SuperBot is a set of robotic modules that form and reconfigurable fur niture. Although a more robust design than spemodular robots won't replace reform linear or solid shapes, such as this walking humanoid form. Developed for possible use by NASA cialized, fixed-architecture robots used in manufacturing promonolithic robots. Robots made in planetary exploration, SuperBot can walk, crawl, cesses, once they can be made small climb, and carry things depending on its form. of heterogeneous modules can enough they may replace certain be more flexible in their capabilmanufacturing processes altogether. ities. "One can think of a mobile "There will be a place for both, robot with dedicated battery, wheel, actuation, or sensor since not all goods we use can or should be made from modules, which has all the capabilities of its individual modular robots," said Pickem. modules," said Pickem. "Overall functionality is improved Miniature modular robots could eventually assemble into at a much lower cost. To extend a homogeneous robot, all consumer products. "For example, a car could change its modules must be extended with the desired capability." shape, color, model, or interior design, according to your The GRITS Lab uses self-assembly with a fixed number daily needs or desires," said Pickem. Instead of manufacturof modules. Pickem's research has shifted from working ing parts to be assembled into furniture, one could buy with homogeneous and centralized architectures to heteroa number of modular robots that self-assemble into the geneous and decentralized approaches. "The main reason desired shape. "Obviously, these robots would still have to is that I want to create a general framework for reconfigube manufactured, but the classical manufacturing model ration and scale my approach up to very high numbers where each product requires a specific manufacturing proof modules, to incorporate thousands or even millions of cess would be replaced by a single process that builds only modules as robots become smaller and smaller," he said. these modular robots." Some products — those that need Existing hardware prototype robots are still fairly large, so high structural stability, don't need to change shape, or at smaller scales more modules will be needed to assemble aren't long-lived — will still be manufactured in the cona given shape. Eventually, centralized control won't be an ventional way. DN option because communication and planning costs will become too high. Planning for so many centrally controlled For More Information: CSAIL's Distributed Robotics Lab: robots won't be possible on a reasonable time scale, and communicating among robots, and between robots and the GRITS Lab at Georgia Tech: central planner, will become a real issue. "My vision for my own research is to create a generalSuperBot: purpose robot," said Pickem. "Like a human being, the robot CKbot: would adapt to the task, instead of adapting the task to the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering: robot. If it needs to open a door, it forms an arm. If it needs to go fast, it forms wheels. I want to bridge the gap between Design News | april 2013 | www.d esign n –40–

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