Linkbot: That Modular Robot You've Always Wanted Is Now on Kickstarter

These small, easy to program modules snap together to make bigger robots

2 min read
Linkbot: That Modular Robot You've Always Wanted Is Now on Kickstarter

Last month (I don't know how it can possibly be just last month but somehow it is) at Stanford's Robot Block Party, we talked to the guys over at Barobo, who gave us a peek at a modular educational robot system that they were getting ready to Kickstart. The project has now launched, meaning that the time to get a DIY modular robotics kit of your very own is right now.

Barobo's Kickstarter video does an excellent job explaining everything that these modular robots, called Linkbots, are capable of:

We know from experience that robotics comes with a learning curve that would intimidate even Sir Edmund Hillary, so we're always excited to see robots designed to help kids (and those of us who know less than kids) get started in a fun and easy way. It's worth mentioning, though, that there's some serious research behind Linkbot: Graham Ryland, the president of Barobo, worked on iMobot, a modular robotic system that we covered several years ago.

Now, it's true that similar (in size) robotics kits may be a bit less expensive than the $190 per module that a Linkbot will run you (it's discounted for Kickstarter backers), but there are some good reasons for the cost, as the company explains:

"I think the thing that sets Linkbot apart from most robots is our absolute encoding and torque to weight ratio. We want you to do more than just roll, we want you to walk!"

Encoding is the thing that you need to make precise movements with a wheeled robot: it's basically a hardware feature that tells the brain of the robot exactly what the wheels of the robot are doing, and the better your encoders are, the easier time you'll have moving in straight lines and getting from one place to another. Also, if you're using a Linkbot module as something besides a wheel (like an arm), those encoders are what's going to be responsible for precise, repeatable motions.

The advantage of motors with a high torque to weight ratio are pretty straightforward. In the case of most robots, it's not so much about speed that we care about, it's power. Finding motors that can drive a wheeled robot along isn't very difficult (or very expensive), but walking (or grasping) involves moving a lot more mass, since you often end up in situations where most of the weight of the robot is being supported by just one or two motors. For walking to work, you want to have the strongest motor you can in the lightest package possible, which is what Linkbot is trying to do.

If you check out the Kickstarter page, there are still a few Linkbot kits available for $140, which is $50 cheaper than the post-Kickstarter price. Adding modules starts to get expensive rather quickly (two will set you back nearly $400 when you add a Bluetooth-enabled breakout board), which is a bit unfortunate since part of the point of modular robots is to be able to have, you know, modules (plural). But, we're optimistic that multi-Linkbot kits will find their way into schools and other educational settings, while the rest of us will just have to get creative.

[ Kickstarter ] via [ Barobo ]

Thanks Graham!

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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

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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