May 31, 2012

The following blog was inspired by an article written by Ann R. Thryft.   Ann is the senior technical editor for Materials and Assembly for Design News.  This is a marvelous magazine that highlights engineering efforts underway and making news on a daily basis.  The photographs were also taken from that article.

I have a fascination with robotic systems that can perform functions emulating human beings and various animals.   There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that “homo sapiens” are the most complicated organisms on our planet.   An electromechanical device capable of performing functions hazardous and unsafe for humans would necessarily be patterned after subjects who can get the job done—namely us.   There are also certain capabilities animals have that definitely apply to the performance of some functions.     Let’s now take a look several research and development efforts specifically patterned after “lesser creatures”.


The Multi-Appendage Robotic System (MARS) from Virginia Tech’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory looks like a giant spider with six legs instead of eight. Fabricated out of carbon fiber and aluminum, the robot’s legs are spaced axi-symmetrically around its body, which lets it walk omni-directionally. Each leg uses a proximal joint with two degrees of freedom and a distal joint with one degree of freedom for added strength and rigidity. The goal is to develop a walking gait system for negotiating terrain with variations in height.   Changing elevations has always been a considerable impediment to robotic systems relative to continued motion.  The system is based on simplified biological neuron networks, arranged in sub networks and subsystems to support the operation of another neural network: a central pattern generator (CPG) that generates gait patterns based on feedback from all supporting systems.  .    I think it’s a little scary what these things can do.  I certainly understand the need to go where human health and safety would be compromised but I’m a little nervous relative to the more clandestine possibilities.  Remember the movie “Minority Report” and the “bots” used to search for the hero (Tom Cruise)?   He’s lying there in the tub, under water, to avoid these pesky little devices that will certainly cause his capture and possible death.  (OK so I’m paranoid!)  The mechanical aspects represent just how far engineering has come and how successful y we have mastered emulating “moving things”.  I am also fascinated that programming can make these things do what is needed.   This “spider” robot reminds me of that movie.  It certainly appears that fact has caught with fiction.   (Source: Virginia Polytechnic and State University)



The Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Inchworm (shown above) moves like a caterpillar by flexing and extending itself. Electromagnets at each end of its body provide the anchoring force. Developed by a team at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, the Inchworm can climb vertical steel walls or crawl across a steel ceiling by using the electromagnets to attach itself to surfaces. It can also navigate autonomously in unknown environments by making transitions between surfaces. Its stepping gait for straight-line motion consists of four phases: attach the back foot, extend the front foot, attach the front foot, contract the back foot. While navigating, it can also push and pull objects.    Of course the effectiveness is negated when the device tries to move over a surface that is not metallic in nature.  This represents the fact that it has been designed for a very specific purpose.    (Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology)


Some winged robots are designed to work in swarms, such as the MonolithicBee, or MoBee, from Harvard University’s Microrobotics Lab. This lab focuseson creating high-performance aerial and ambulatory microrobots and soft robots inspired by biological models. The robots can be used for exploring hazardous environments, search-and-rescue operations, environmental monitoring, and assisting agriculture. The MoBee, which is about the size of a housefly, is made from custom hardware. It is part of the RoboBees Project funded by the National Science Foundation for mimicking the behavior of a bee colony and adapting to changing environments.   The most fascinating fact, at least to me, is the very small size and how engineers and manufacturers fashion the individual component parts to assemble the device.  Please look at the JPEG above and notice the comparison with the quarter it sits on.  Truly marvelous engineering from the guys at Harvard.   (Source: Harvard University)

The University of California, Berkeley’s Biomimetics Millisystems Laboratory has designed two small winged robots: the Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod (DASH), a cockroach-like robot with wings added to boost ground locomotion, and the flying Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning (BOLT), shown below. The BOLT, a 13-gram ornithopter, is based on the lab’s OctoROACH, also inspired by a cockroach. The BOLT uses its flapping wings to provide passive stability when running at up to 2.5m/sec while maintaining ground contact, as well as for flying. This lets it travel over a variety of difficult environments for surveillance or search-and-rescue operations.   (Source: University of California, Berkeley)

These systems are important and fascinating because they represent research underway to advance “state-of-the -art” for robotic systems and fulfill definiteneeds—very definite needs.   Each system was developed for a specific purpose but all represent the ability to remove an individual from harms way.    Most of the effort is funded by the DOD or DARPA but the results have definite possibilities for law enforcement also.  Used properly, lives and property could save the agony of personal injury and reduce unnecessary liability.  Another huge benefit necessary to these programs is the development of software and mathematical algorithms required to drive systems such as the ones shown above.   We are a long way from “terminator-type” devices but we probably do not wish to go there anyway.  I certainly hope you enjoyed this very brief summary and have gotten some idea as to where we are relative to robotic systems.  Exciting work is continuing and I’m sure by this time next year remarkable advances will have taken place.


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