Gecko-Inspired Window Washing Robot is Powered Entirely by Water

This climbing robot washes windows with water, sticks with water, and even moves with water power

2 min read
Gecko-Inspired Window Washing Robot is Powered Entirely by Water

gecko-inspired climbing cleaning robot

Batteries and motors are heavy and inefficient in that they expend a significant percentage of their power just moving their own mass. This is especially apparent in climbing robots, which spend most of their time hoisting themselves vertically upward. Researchers from Zhejiang University in China have developed a robot that’s capable of sticking to smooth surfaces, climbing vertically, and washing windows, relying almost entirely on water pressure:

To function, the robot gets connected to a faucet with a loop (a really long loop, if necessary) of hose. As water flows through the hose, its pressure accomplishes several things. First, the water passes through fluidic vacuum generators, which use that same Bernoulli principle that those supersonic jet grippers take advantage of to turn the motion of a fluid into a vacuum. This allows the bot’s feet to stick to any smooth surface.

Then, the water is routed through a solenoid valve to a piston that’s attached to the “spine” of the robot. The inspiration for this design was the gecko, arguably the best wall-climber in existence, and the upshot of it is that the robot can climb relatively quickly (constrained only by the time it takes to establish a solid vacuum) and turn in either direction with just one single spinal actuator. And of course lastly, the water is squirted out at the end of the robot’s arm to do the actual washing.

The robot does currently use a very small battery to power the wireless communication system and to trip the servo to control the direction of motion, but it’s certainly possible that a small turbine could run all that stuff instead. The present design is able to lift twice its body weight in payload using just standard tap water pressure, and future versions might be able to conduct inspections, fight fires, paint, or even perform repairs.

This robot was presented in an ICRA paper entitled “A Gecko Inspired Fluid Driven Climbing Robot,” by Jilin Liu, Zhangqian Tong, Jinyuan Fu, Donghai Wang, Qi Su, and Jun Zou of the Institute of Mechatronic Control Engineering at Zhejiang University, China.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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