Self-Contained Soft Robot is a Master of Creepy Oozing

DARPA's Chembots program is back, in the form of MIT's latest boneless wonderbot

2 min read
Self-Contained Soft Robot is a Master of Creepy Oozing

We're not entirely sure what happened with DARPA's Chembots program. We certainly didn't end up with one of these (not that we know of, anyway), but some cool stuff did happen along the way, like this and this and this and especially this. At the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last month, we got a look at another type of soft robot, this one completely self-contained and capable of creepily rolling around on its own:

The robot is powered by a "pneumatic battery," which uses hydrogen peroxide and a catalyst to generate the gas pressure with which the robot sequentially inflates silicone bladders to propel itself. There's a brilliant system inside the battery to self-regulate the reaction so that the robot only ever uses as much of the H2O2 fuel as it needs. To control its motion, the bot relies on a system of electropermanent magnet valves. These valves are just like regular electromagnetic valves -- except they're permanent. You can switch them on and off using a little bit of current, but once the switch is made, they'll stay there without needing any power at all. It's very clever.

This research was sponsored by DARPA under the Chembots program and the Programmable Matter program, with help from Boeing. Combinations like that get me all excited, and although there may not be a future for this squishy little guy specifically, the underlying technology (specifically, those nifty little valves), could start popping up in all sorts of (probably less creepy) places. 

"Soft Robot Actuators using Energy-Efficient Valves Controlled by Electropermanent Magnets," by Andrew D. Marchese, Cagdas D. Onal, and Daniela Rus from MIT, was presented at IROS 2011 in San Francisco last month.

Via [ Hizook ]

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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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