The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Little Amphibious Tumbling Robot Tackles Tough Terrain

The secret to making a small robot that can sink, swim, and slog through sand? Easy: just teach it to do somersaults

2 min read
Little Amphibious Tumbling Robot Tackles Tough Terrain

As components get smaller, robots are getting smaller as well, but in general small robots have big problems with obstacles and rough terrain. We've seen a variety of examples of robots that have found ways around this problem (most notably robots that jump or fly), but this might be the most creative yet: it's a robot that tumbles.

By "tumble," I mean that this robot is designed to move by flipping itself end-over-end in a somersaulting motion. It's called Aquapod, and it was created by the University of Minnesota's Center for Distributed Robotics. Aquapod uses two carbon fiber arms connected to servo motors that can rotate continuously to, as the researchers put it, "induce a tumble."

The reason that it's called Aquapod, incidentally, is that it's also waterproof, with the ability to control its buoyancy, floating or sinking or even just chilling out somewhere in the water column. This enables it to operate quite happily on land as well as in water, where it can sink itself to the bottom of lakes and streams and tumble along the bottom.

Aquapod might not be the fastest robot ever, but it has no trouble tumbling over slippery surfaces, through sand, and towards skeptical ducks. The offset arms help to give it more degrees of freedom to escape from vegetation and other obstacles, trading a little bit of efficiency for increased robustness.

The general intent is for Aquapod to be used in water monitoring or aquatic sensor deployment, where bunches of them can team up to float down rivers, sinking and floating and deploying sensors and taking measurements as they go. It would even be possible to stick one underneath an iced-over lake to monitor fish populations during the winter, where the robot could move around by "inverse tumbling" on the underside of the ice while upside-down.

Next up will be to work in solar power along with autonomous control for long-duration research. Even without any of that stuff the robot is still a very promising platform, though, since it's estimated to cost only about $2,000 to build.

Aquapod was presented in an ICRA paper entitled "Aquapod: Prototype Design of an Amphibious Tumbling Robot," by Andrew Carlson and Nikos Papanikolopoulos from the Center for Distributed Robotics at the University of Minnesota.

The Conversation (0)

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?

Keep Reading ↓Show less