Futuristic robotics making progress today

26 July 2011

CEE reports on news stories which relate to innovative robotics research and development.

OC Robotics - Snake-Arm at full reach inspecting pipework
OC Robotics - Snake-Arm at full reach inspecting pipework

At the last European Robotics Forum the subject of the Fukushima nuclear disaster was high on the agenda, and whether similar incidents could be solved with robots.

Dr. Vincent C. Müller, research co-ordinator for a research project called EUCogII decried the current fragmentation in the robotics research agenda. He said: “We need to step back and consider the bigger picture”. He believes that cognitive robots, whose thought processes would be akin to artificial intelligence, are not only feasible, but hold the key to solving situations like Fukushima, whose unfolding events cannot be predicted.

“Our current robots are like laptops – they either work or they don’t”, said Dr. Müller. “We need to focus on developing intelligent, flexible, biologically inspired alternatives. Robots of the future need to be less like laptops and more like cockroaches, adaptive and low-power.”
“Sequences of events, like Fukushima are impossible to predict,” he said. “The reactors shut down as planned, but when the electricity supply went down, nothing happened and there was nothing in the manual about this eventuality. As we will never be able to achieve 100% accurate predictions of the future, we must develop intelligent, robust, autonomous systems that will keep on working in less than ideal situations. The ramifications will be huge, not just for the nuclear sector, but for mining, space and the oil and gas industries”.

While teams like EUCog may still be some way from developing fully functioning cognitive robots, other speakers made clear that the Japanese authorities’ action plan would have benefitted from a truly accurate understanding of events unfolding within the troubled plant. The solution to this, it was suggested, could have been a branch of robotics known as surveillance, which has existed for many years and is now considered mature and effective. Best known in this genre is the radiation resistant, snake arm robot, developed by OC Robotics.

Geoff Pegman, MD of RU Robots, said: “France and Germany, both nations dependent on nuclear power, have robotically equipped response teams and the Japanese should have sought help from these specialists, to whom robots are not seen as futuristic, but as standard kit. In fact, one wonders why all nuclear nations do not already maintain such a capability.”

Looking to nature
Despite their flexibility and adaptability, current versions of soft-bodied robots are limited by their slow speed, leading researchers to turn, obviously one might assume, to terrestrial soft-bodied animals such as caterpillars, for inspiration.

Some caterpillars have the ability to rapidly curl themselves into a wheel and propel themselves away from predators. This highly dynamic process, called ballistic rolling, is one of the fastest wheeling behaviours in nature.

Researchers from Tufts University in Massachusetts have designed a robot that mimics this behaviour and are looking to develop a better understanding of the mechanics behind ballistic rolling.

A recent study, published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics journal, also includes a video of both the caterpillar and robot in action (www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZe9qWi-LUo)

To simulate the movement of a caterpillar, researchers designed a 10cm long soft-bodied robot, called GoQBot, made out of silicone rubber. It is actuated by embedded shape memory alloy coils. It was named GoQBot as it forms a ‘Q’ shape before rolling away at over 50cm/sec.

The GoQBot was fitted with five infrared emitters along its side to allow motion tracking using high-speed 3D tracking system. Simultaneously, a force plate measured the detailed ground forces as the robot pushed off into a ballistic roll.

In order to change its body conformation, in under 100 ms, GoQBot benefits from a wide degree of mechanical coordination in ballistic rolling. Researchers believe such coordination is mediated by the nonlinear muscle coupling in the animals.

The researchers were also able to explain why caterpillars don’t use the ballistic roll more often as a default mode of transport. Despite its impressive performance, ballistic rolling is only effective on smooth surfaces, it demands a large amount of power, and often ends unpredictably! However it is hoped that this new locomotor strategy could find uses in future robot development.


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