iRobot's Shape-Shifting Blob 'Bot Takes Its First Steps

iRobot shows off a morphing robot prototype that will be able to squeeze through wall cracks and under doors

2 min read
iRobot's Shape-Shifting Blob 'Bot Takes Its First Steps

This is by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we at IEEE Spectrum have ever seen.

Meet iRobot's soft, shape-shifting robot blob. It rolls around and changes shape, and it will be able to squeeze through tiny cracks in a wall when the project is finished.

(Skip the first 1:50 minutes of the video above to see the blob in action.)

Researchers from iRobot and the University of Chicago discussed their palm-sized soft robot, known as a chemical robot, or chembot, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems yesterday. It's "the first demonstration of a completely soft, mobile robot using jamming as an enabling technology," they write in a paper presented at the conference. 

The concept of "jamming skin enabled locomotion" is explained quite nicely in the video. The polymer used for the bot’s stretchy skin is off-the-shelf silicone two-part rubber.

By controlling the parts of the blob that "inflate," the researchers can make it roll.

The video shows the project as it was about a year ago. The current stage has a bit different design and is moving toward the ability to include sensors or even connect different blobs together, but those details are sketchy.

When asked about the usefulness of such a bot, iRobot researcher Annan Mozeika promptly answered, "to squeeze into small holes." And who wants to do that? DARPA, of course. End of questions.

Update: We corrected a typo above: silicon should be silicone—hah!

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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

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

"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.

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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