Emerging Tech

FoamBot Builds Baby Bots for Any Occasion

Those tactical robots some police departments use to deal with dangerous situations are great, but they have one drawback — they’re specialized and so are limited to a few uses.

What if a police or fire department could create a bunch of robots as needed for different uses?

That’s the idea the University of Pennsylvania’s ModLab goes after with its FoamBot.

This robot carries around modules, called “connector kinetic robots,” or CKBots, which it assembles as needed according to templates.

“The whole point is that a single FoamBot can handle many, many different tasks,” post-doctoral research associate Shai Revzen, the lead author on the FoamBot paper, told TechNewsWorld.

“The robots it builds are not as good as custom-built robots, but you can decide which one you want and build it on the fly,” Revzen added.

The Making of a Baby Bot

After the mothership assembles CKBots as needed, it sprays them with foam to hold them together.

FoamBots aren’t likely to hit the market any time soon, though.

“If we’re really lucky and there’s a particular application need people have, it’s possible there may be one or two we can show people within three or four years,” Mark Yim, a professor in the mechanical engineering and applied mechanics department at the University of Pennsylvania, who started up ModLab, told TechNewsWorld.

What the FoamBot’s About

The FoamBot itself consists of what Yim calls a “mothership,” which is based on a Willow Garage mini-PR2 robot, and a bunch of CKBot clusters.

“The mothership can carry clusters consisting of three to four CKBots each as it drives around,” Yim said.

The mothership used for the FoamBot was built from nine CKBots and carried around 12 CKBots in clusters, Revzen said.

To build another bot, the mothership places CKBot clusters according to a predetermined pattern and sprays them with urethane foam. This comes in two parts, like an epoxy, which create the foam when they’re mixed together.

The FoamBot assembled mini-bots under remote control by a human, Revzen said. Although the team so far hasn’t tried to automate the process, “there seems to be no limitation to doing so.”

About CKBots

CKBots are chain-style modular robots designed to be fast and inexpensive while being small enough to fit inside a three-inch tube. That size requirement is to ensure that bots made from CKBots to crawl through the three-inch pipes found in most buildings.

The CKBots are manually reconfigurable into any shape and allow attachments such as wheels, grippers, infrared proximity sensors and camera modules.

There are two types of CKBot modules — a U-bar module and an L-bar module. The difference in structure enables modules to connect on different rotational axes, but they’re otherwise basically the same.

The FoamBot project is one of several that ModLabs is undertaking with CKBots. Others include self-reassembly after explosion, dynamic locomotion and configuration recognition.

Modules can be connected manually using 3M screws, and can be connected electrically to share power and communication on a Controller Area Network (CAN) bus using a 20-pin header. Modules on the same bus are called a “cluster.”

Clusters can communicate with each other using infrared. Each module has seven pairs of IR devices that can function as transmitters and receivers.

CKBots came out of the PolyBot project Yim was working on at the Palo Alto Research Center.

Looking Into the Future

You won’t need to be an expert to guide a FoamBot mothership to make modules you need.

“If someone who’s a non-expert wants to use this to build robots, we’ll give him a specific number of possibilities,” Yim said.

“For example, if you wanted to build a snake, you could make it as long as you needed; or if you wanted to build a multi-legged creature you’d have the templates for a four-, six- or eight-legged creature,” Yim said.

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