Modular robotics is tremendously exciting, because instead of being constrained to one specific design that can do a limited number of things, a robot that's modular can be reconfigured (on the fly, even) to do whatever you want it to do, provided you have the hardware and software experience to make it work. For most of us, that whole "having hardware and software and experience" has kept modular robots from being something that we can really take advantage of, but over the last few years, user-friendly systems like Cubelets and MOSS have made it possible to build robots from modular parts without any programming at all.
Fable is a new kind of modular robot under development at the Technical University of Denmark that takes a slightly different approach: it's based on large, self contained modules that work independently or together and are programmable at several different levels of abstraction. It's a little bit freaky looking, but offers a combination of simplicity and the potential for complexity that seems very compelling.
It might be helpful to think of modular robot ecosystems as having different degrees of modularity. I just made up this "degrees of modularity" thing, so there may already be a term for what I'm talking about, but let me explain: a modular robot with a high degree of modularity might be something like Cubelets, where you have battery modules, sensor modules, and actuator modules. A modular robot with a low degree of modularity might be something a robot that I can't seem to remember off the top of my head where the entire propulsion system can be swapped out all at once.
Fable is somewhere in the middle, with a degree of modularity that is based on self-contained individual modules with their own batteries, sensing, communication, and actuation, that can be snapped together to make more complex robots.
Here's how it all works:
The most basic programming interface (if you even want to use a programming interface) is visual, based on Blockly, and it's possible to, say, generate multiple gaits for a modular quadruped that will take you an average of 16.9 seconds to assemble from scratch.
The creators of Fable hope that their design will appeal to students, hobbyists, and researchers alike. They're still iterating on the specifics of the robot and modules, and are planning to release a gripper module, a head module with a sensor package, and rotary modules that can be used as wheels. Compatible programming languages will include Python, Java, Matlab/Simulink. We're not sure exactly when Fable will be available (or how much it will cost), but we'll let you know when it goes live.
"Fable: A Modular Robot for Students, Makers and Researchers," by Moises Pacheco, Rune Fogh, Henrik Hautop Lund, and David Johan Christensen, was presented this week at the Modular and Swarm Systems Workshop at IROS 2014 in Chicago.
[ Fable ]