by David Geer
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
NASA is seeking robots that can withstand the rigors of use on foreign orbs and
can re-configure themselves from Land Rovers to Space Labs to you-name-it
without human intervention. Likewise, search, rescue, and recon missions
could use a little help with unmanned, multi-application bots that tackle
all terrains and self-repair by casting off dead limbs (modules) and
re-building themselves for immediate, further service.
Enter the ISI Polymorphic Robotics Lab, which is conducting research into self-reconfigurable, autonomous robots called SuperBots with capabilities derived in part from
the study of insect and animal life. Are the ISIs (Information
Sciences Institute, University of Southern California)
SuperBots the answer NASA is looking for? Let’s see.
SuperBot modules are made up of two, connected, 64
mm cubed “cubes” of aluminum alloy material. The modules
have three degrees of freedom, share power with each other,
SuperBot formed into a track bot laying on its side.
In this configuration, it can roll across terrain similar to
how a track on a military tank would.
10 SERVO 11.2009
and communicate via infrared LEDs, according to SuperBot:
A Deployable, Multi-functional, and Modular
Self-reconfigurable Robotic System — a paper from the ISI
at USC. The robots are controlled by multi-threaded
software, capable of running multiple processes at once.
The software runs instructions controlling the modules
cooperative behaviors across the network of modules in a
distributed computing architecture.
The 128 mm length, 500 gram cubes house the
motors, electronics, and batteries which are protected by an
aluminum alloy covering. Each cube is an end effector that
can connect to other modules’ end effectors either on the
left or right side of the cube or on the back. This gives each
module six surfaces on which it can connect to another
module on any of its six such surfaces.
These connectors are designed ultimately to be sand,
moisture, and abrasion proof. By making such connections,
many modules connect to form differing robotic
configurations, each capable of their own unique skill sets.
Each module has a central, rotational piece of
hardware that — combined with the end effector’s
shafts — enables the cubes with 180 degrees of yaw,
180 degrees of pitch, and unlimited degrees of roll.
The module drive train includes a MicroMo DC electric
motor, Planetary gearbox, and external gearbox. Up to
21. 18 milli-Newton-meters of torque output provided by
the motor supports lifting up to three connected modules,
according to the paper.
All SuperBot actuators, connectors, sensors, power,
inter-module communications, autonomous intelligence,
and distributed control are maintained by hardware located
in the modules.
Each cube houses a controller which is, in turn, based on