Most of us have a fairly rational expectation that if we put our cellphone down somewhere, it will stay in that place until we pick it up again. Normally, this is exactly what you’d want, but there are exceptions, like when you put your phone down in not quite the right spot on a wireless charging pad without noticing, or when you’re lying on the couch and your phone is juuust out of reach no matter how much you stretch.
Roboticists from the Biorobotics Laboratory at Seoul National University in South Korea have solved both of these problems, and many more besides, by developing a cellphone case with little robotic legs, endowing your phone with the ability to skitter around autonomously. And unlike most of the phone-robot hybrids we’ve seen in the past, this one actually does look like a legit case for your phone.
CaseCrawler is much chunkier than a form-fitting case, but it’s not offensively bigger than one of those chunky battery cases. It’s only 24 millimeters thick (excluding the motor housing), and the total weight is just under 82 grams. Keep in mind that this case is in fact an entire robot, and also not at all optimized for being an actual phone case, so it’s easy to imagine how it could get a lot more svelte—for example, it currently includes a small battery that would be unnecessary if it instead tapped into the phone for power.
The technology inside is pretty amazing, since it involves legs that can retract all the way flat while also supporting a significant amount of weight. The legs work sort of like your legs do, in that there’s a knee joint that can only bend one way. To move the robot forward, a linkage (attached to a motor through a gearbox) pushes the leg back against the ground, as the knee joint keeps the leg straight. On the return stroke, the joint allows the leg to fold, making it compliant so that it doesn’t exert force on the ground. The transmission that sends power from the gearbox to the legs is just 1.5-millimeter thick, but this incredibly thin and lightweight mechanical structure is quite powerful. A non-phone case version of the robot, weighing about 23 g, is able to crawl at 21 centimeters per second while carrying a payload of just over 300 g. That’s more than 13 times its body weight.
The researchers plan on exploring how robots like these could make other objects movable that would otherwise not be. They’d also like to add some autonomy, which (at least for the phone case version) could be as straightforward as leveraging the existing sensors on the phone. And as to when you might be able to buy one of these—we’ll keep you updated, but the good news is that it seems to be fundamentally inexpensive enough that it may actually crawl out of the lab one day.