We live in a world where many representatives of the fauna are forced to adapt their external features in order to survive: from butterflies able to grow wings to hermit crabs replacing their shells. People cannot make such metamorphoses, but try to create functional objects that are able to adapt to changes in the environment or new tasks. One of the directions of this biomimetics is robotics.
In popular films like “Transformers,” the image of multifunctional robot designers is exploited, but they have little in common with reality: modern robots still remain rather inflexible. Scientists design for each goal a separate robot, each functional part of which is usually clearly fixed, so they can hardly be called multi-tasking.
Researchers from the Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence MIT are trying to remedy this situation with the help of a new shape-changing Primer robot. Primer is a kind of "superhero": it can replace functional exoskeletons, like outfits, thanks to which it can perform various tasks.
This little cubic robot is controlled by magnets: so it can walk, roll, soar and slide. Exoskeletons of plastic sheets, which when heated are folded into certain forms, use the Primer as a core, turning into a boat, glider or wheel. When the Primer finishes the job, he dumps his “skin” by plunging into the water that dissolves the exoskeleton.
This approach, which is based on metamorphosis, scientists hope to expand the capabilities of one robot, creating "accessories" depending on the situation. So Primer with different "costumes" there are a number of advantages. For example, the Wheel-bot shell makes it move twice as fast as a Walk-bot. With Boat-bot the robot can float on water and carry on itself twice more weight, than without a shell. Glider-bot allows the robot to plan in the air over long distances, which can be useful for moving robots or changing environments.
A primer can also wear several skeletons at once, one in the other, like a nesting doll. For example, wear a Walk-bot, and then interact with another, larger exoskeleton, with which it can transfer objects and move at the same time to two lengths of his own body per second. To unfold the second exoskeleton, a robot with a Walk-bot drives onto a sheet of plastic that “envelops” the robot and forms the appropriate shape. The very process of creating exoskeletons fast: a new “clothes” for the Primer can be done in a few hours. Already finished exoskeletons are folded into the desired shape in a few seconds.
The project is based on the previous developments of a team of scientists, including magnetic blocks capable of assembling into different forms, and finely tuned plastic micro-robots made of plastic sheets. Researchers claim that it is easier to develop large transforming robots than small ones. Eric Diller, an expert on microrobot and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto
, believes that the current work of scientists from MIT can rightly be considered some progress compared to their previous developments: they demonstrated a device that implements five functionalities.
The previous works of other scientists in most cases did not go beyond the two possibilities - the “opening” and “closing” of the form. The team offers many potential schemes for using multifunctional robots, which simply change the "costume". For example, if one such robot with several exoskeletons was scaled tenfold, it could transfer the equipment across the river, having folded into the shape of a boat, and then drag it along the coast to the right place.
The next step is to explore the possibilities of making the Primer even more functional. The team plans to teach him a lot: from driving through water and burying in the sand to changing colors and masking.
The creators of the robot are confident that in the future this technology will be useful in space exploration: robots with exoskeletons can be sent to Mars missions, where they can perform various tasks.
Scientific work published in the journal Science Robotics September 27
DOI: 1 0.1126 / scirobotics.aao4369