Modular ‘mobot’ crawls in clusters

UC DAVIS (US) — An engineering team has created a modular robot made of durable subunits that can function alone or be configured for a specific task.

A single iMobot module has four controllable degrees of freedom, with two joints in the center section and two wheels, one on each end. An individual module can drive on its wheels, crawl like an inchworm, or raise one end of its body and pan around as a camera platform.

“We wanted to create a robot that was modular and could be assembled together, but was also mobile and useful by itself. We feel this hardware platform could drastically speed up university and industry research in the field of robotics,” says Graham Ryland, who helped develop iMobot while studying for his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in the lab of Harry Cheng, a professor at the University of California, Davis.

The iMobot could be used as a testbed tool for engineers studying control systems for individual robots or groups of robots, Cheng says. The technology may eventually form the basis of robots for search-and-rescue operations in difficult terrain.

“It’s very difficult to build the kind of robot with flexibility, modularity, and reconfigurability that people want to use for research and teaching,” he says.

By using an off-the-shelf commercial robot like iMobot, researchers can focus on solving problems in areas such as artificial intelligence, robot collaboration, and reconfigurable and adaptive systems, without having to first develop the hardware part of the robot.

Currently, there are no commercial research-grade modular robots available, Ryland says.

Cheng and Ryland have formed a company, Barobo Inc., to develop the robot commercially. Ryland is the company’s president. Barobo recently received a small-business innovation research grant from the National Science Foundation to begin commercial development. The initial grant is for $150,000 over six months, with the opportunity to apply for another $500,000. The inventors hope to have the robot on the market by the end of this year.

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