Floating Robotic Shipping Containers Team Up to Create Islands and Runways

DARPA wants swarms of modular robotic boats to form structures on water

2 min read
Groups of modular robotic boats form structures on water.

Well, it was only a matter of time: first, there were robot swarms on the ground. Then, there were robot swarms in the air. And now, we’ve got robot swarms taking over a swimming pool. Run for the hills! Or really, you’ll probably be fine running for any sort of dry land if you want to escape this swarm of robotic boats. But why would you want to do that? It’s not like they’re part of some sort of DARPA project that will one day take over the world or something. Nope, definitely nothing like that.

I guess we can’t realistically promise that any swarm of robots doesn’t have world domination on its minds. But until it’s demonstrably too late, we’ll just keep on calling them cute. And these robotic boats from the University of Pennsylvania are totally cute.

Mark Yim and his students are trying to get this big fleet of small robotic boats to cooperate to form all sorts of useful structures. By coupling together, a large enough swarm of these things is capable of forming, bridges, runways, or even islands. UPenn has over 100 of ’em, each one of which is controlled with a Gumstix and uses four separate motors to enable omnidirectional movement and zero-radius turns. According to this article in the Daily Pennsylvanian:

“Last Wednesday, the objective was to get the boats to form a bridge across a corner of the pool and drive a car across the bridge. The week before, the boats successfully configured themselves into an island for one of Engineering professor Vijay Kumar’s quadrotor drones to land on.”

Come on, that’s pretty cool, right?

What DARPA wants to have happen here is to (eventually) scale this system up to boats the size of shipping containers, since shipping containers are cheap, everywhere, and easy to transport and manage. You could fill a container ship with these modules and dump them all into the water near a disaster zone, tell them that you need a runway, and they’d all zip around and form a nice big flat stabilized runway for you. When you’re done, or you need something else, the modules will unhook themselves and either reconfigure into something different or queue up to get collected and moved on to wherever else they’re needed. It’s cheap, fast infrastructure. Let’s call it Instastructure.™

Oh, and by the way, naming all the boats after period table elements? Epically geeky. Love it.

[ DARPA ] and [ MODLAB ] via [ Daily Pennsylvanian ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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