Simple Vibrating Bot Climbs Tubes With Ease

Dynamic motion propels the robot at up to 20 body lengths per second

1 min read

I have to admit that I'm a sucker for simple solutions to difficult problems. At ICRA this week, one of the cleverest new designs (and winner of the award for best video) was for a small tube climbing robot. The Biorobotics lab and Manipulation lab at Carnegie Mellon University have been working for several years on dynamic climbing bots that can climb between walls without any special attachment mechanism. But they wanted to come up with a smaller design that could make it up three-dimensional tubes.

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The result is this little device. It's simple motor turns an unbalanced mass at a uniform velocity. As the mass swings around, it causes the robot to bounce back and forth between the tube walls. Two rubber o-rings let the researches specify the exact contact points and increase friction with the walls.

This isn't the first tube-climbing, vibrating robot, but it has some distinct advantages. Earlier designs relied on fibers or bristles to create anisotropic friction with the walls and vibration caused motion in the direction of lowest friction. The problem with these designs comes when you need to remove the robot--now you're forced to work against the maximum friction.

What's most impressive about Carnegie Mellon's new bot is its speed, versatility, and payload capability. In the video, you can see that it travels up to 20 body-lengths per second and has a payload capacity of roughly 5x it's weight. The robot can even climb different sized tubes, although at different rates.

The researchers say they weren't application driven, but it's not hard to imagine such a simple device coming in handy for navigating tubing quickly.

(Video courtesy of Amir Degani, Siyuan Feng, Howie Choset, and Matthew T. Mason)

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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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