Most wall-climbing robots that we’re familiar with use one of just a few different techniques to stick to vertical surfaces. Generally, they’re either using magnets, vacuums, or the recently popular gecko foot adhesive pads. There are other more exotic systems as well, like microspines, cloth grabbing, elecrostatics, and hot glue.

No matter what technique you use, you’re always taking a risk with a climbing robot that doesn’t depend on external infrastructure: if your climbing system of choice ever fails, you robot will very shortly find itself transformed into a sad little pile of brokenness, thanks to gravity. To be safe, your climbing robot needs to be able to fly, too. 

Researchers at KAIST’s Urban Robotics Lab, in South Korea, who developed this robot, say that other climbing robots have trouble making the transition from lab to commercial deployment because nobody wants to risk their delicate and expensive sensor payloads on a robot designed to climb very high up with a single point of potentially catatrophic failure. KAIST’s robot, on the other hand, can just fly safely to the ground if it ever becomes unstuck.

You might be wondering what the point of doing this is: If the robot can fly, and if its wall-climbing capability takes just as much energy (if not more energy) than flight, why even bother with the wheels and stuff? Why not just fly around the surface that you’d otherwise be climbing? My guess would be that some types of infrastructure inspections require direct contact with structures, whether it’s for a specific type of sensor or just a level of detail and stability that can’t be achieved without very close physical proximity. 

In any case, multimodal robots like this offer substantial flexibility at the cost of increased complexity in both construction and control, but for applications where (say) falling to your death at any moment is a serious concern, it’s probably worth all the hassle. 

[ KAIST Urban Robotics Lab ]

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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
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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
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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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