Robots are generally designed to perform a single, specific task. But now a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), led by CSAIL director Daniela Rus and former CSAIL postdoc Shuhei Miyashita, is developing a system that allows a "Primer" robot to don various exoskeletons to give it different capabilities.
Robots are becoming more common as they move out of factories and into everyday life, but due to their fixed structures, they only have a limited range of things that each can do. A robotic vacuum cleaner can pick up pet hair, but it can't flip burgers. A robotic burger flipper can make a cheeseburger, but it can't deliver a package.
To extend the capabilities of individual robots, the CSAIL team took a page out of the notebook of the fictional inventor Tony Stark, who can swap out his Iron Man armors to suit whatever villain he's fighting that day. Like Iron Man, CSAIL's small-scale "superhero" robot uses a series of exoskeletons to fit the task at hand, though without the billionaire wisecracks.
The core of the origami-inspired system is the Primer robot, which is a cubical robot that is controlled by magnets and can move about by shaking and buzzing. To carry out more complex tasks, including walking, rolling, sailing, or gliding, the Primer can hop onto a flat sheet of plastic that folds into specific shapes when heated, providing the Primer with a self-donning robotic wardrobe. When finished with its job, the Primer can then hop into a dish of water to dissolve the exoskeleton.
Currently, the Primer has the following exoskeletons on hand,
- Walk-bot, which allows the Primer to walk about
- Wheel-bot that allows Primer to move about twice as fast as the Walk-bot
- Boat-bot, which can float on water and carry a payload twice its weight
- Glider-bot that allows the Primer to, well, glide through the air
According to the CSAIL team, the Primer can even wear several exosuits at once, like the Walk-bot combined with a larger, faster exosketon for moving large loads, or combined with the Boat-bot to cross bodies of water. As with the Primer, adding the second skeleton is simply a case of sitting on the plastic sheet and waiting for it to fold itself on.
Though self-morphing robots have been produced before, making one at such a small scale has proven tricky in the past. The team says that the new system builds on their previous work, but allows for a greater variety of outfits and could have applications in fields like space exploration, where a nested stack of exoskeletons would allow a single robot to perform many different tasks. In addition, exoskeletons could be designed and manufactured in a matter of hours in "microfactories" using prefabricated parts.
The researchers are currently working on how to expand the robot's capabilities to include the ability to drive through water, burrow in sand, or camouflage itself. The hope is that its open-source design will also attract the attention of 3D printing enthusiasts.
"If we want robots to help us do things, it's not very efficient to have a different one for each task," says Rus. "With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different 'accessories' to use in different situations."
The research results were published in Science Robotics.
The video below shows the "superhero" robot in action.