bots IN BRIEF
FUN IN THE SUN
Solar panels are obeying the will of Moore's Law by getting ever
cheaper and more efficient. What's not getting cheaper or more efficient
is the human labor required to install them. This keeps the cost of going
solar higher than we would like, but robots are busy coming to our
rescue by setting up solar power plants much cheaper and much, much
For example, using robots to set up a 14 megawatt solar power plant
can potentially cut costs anywhere from $2,000,000 to $900,000, while
being constructed eight times faster with only three human workers
instead of 35.
The robot that performs this incredible feat of engineering efficiency
costs just under a million bucks, but it's built from off-the-shelf parts, and
in continuous use will supposedly pay for itself in either no time at all or less than a year (whichever comes last). Like all
robots, using one of these things means you can get work done in rain or sleet or snow or darkness with no complaints.
However, if you find yourself installing solar panels where all of those things are occurring, you might want to go someplace
else. You know, sunny.
The robot itself has a mobile base that runs on tank treads, and a robot arm grips huge 145 watt panels one at a time and
autonomously positions them in just the right spot on a pre-installed metal frame. Humans follow along behind, adding
fasteners and making electrical connections, but secret plans are underway to roboticize these jobs too. Germans — being big
fans of solar power in their quest to go 80% renewable by 2050 — are quite interested in putting robots like these to work as
are the Japanese, who want to construct solar farms near Fukushima within the next six months.
A RAY OF HOPE
Bioroboticists at the University of Virginia (UVA) have built
themselves a robotic cow-nosed ray.
Why? Because they can.
Also because rays are great at what they do, and if we can copy all
their tricks to make better underwater robots, we absolutely should.
It's no coincidence that all the coolest UAVs look like rays. The
form factor that was invented by batoidea eons ago is advantageous for
a number of reasons common across fluids including both air and water,
including high efficiency, good maneuverability, speediness, and lots of
payload space. In other words — according to the UVA researchers —
rays are "wonderful examples of optimal engineering by nature."
UVA's bioengineers aren't the first roboticists to notice how awesome rays are at being all ray-like. Festo (which knows a
thing or two about robots inspired by nature) made both aerial and aquatic versions of rays that are quite acrobatic. What
UVA is doing differently, however, is focusing on all the subtle ways that aquatic rays can control themselves, with the idea of
developing an underwater robot that can do the same thing.
Making turns like rays do is an ability completely unique to the ray design, and it's a great illustration of why bioroboticists
are so interested in getting all the details right. The body of the roboray is made of plastic, while the wings are made of silicon
stuffed with rods and cables that expand and contract to cause the wing to change shape in ways that are modeled directly on
observations of live rays.
The end goal here is an autonomous underwater vehicle that will be able to silently blend in with other sea creatures,
carrying environmental monitoring payloads or possibly spy gear for the military.
22 SERVO 09.2012