This week at IROS 09 (Intelligent Robots and Systems), iRobot and the University of Chicago unveiled a soft, blobby robot that looks something like an inflating marshmallow.
The new robot, called chembot, changes the shape of its stretchy polymer skin using a technique called “jamming skin enabled locomotion”. This means that different sections of the robot inflate or deflate separately; controlling this inflation and deflation enables the robot to move. DARPA, which is funding the project, hopes to use the robot to squeeze into small holes or under doors, which I’m guessing would be used for sophisticated surveillance.
See Chembot in action in this movie, (which also includes a detailed explanation of how the flexible skin works).
Chembot is, however, far from the first shape-shifting robot.
Here are four robots that show similar metamorphic skill.
TET Rover, NASA
NASA has also been working its own shape-changing robots for a while. Instead of a soft, deformable material though, NASA’s “TET” rover, shown in the animation above, changes shape by adjusting trusses that extend or retract. This would let the robot tumble across terrain and squeeze through tight crevasses on other planets.
Superbot, University of Southern California
Another shape-shifter is the University of Southern California’s SuperBot. This one changes shape using several modular units which connect together like Legos. This allows it to adopt different motions, including walking, crawling or rolling.
Here is a similar reconfigurable robot developed by Mark Yim from the University of Pennsylvania’s (a 1999 TR35 winner). Yim’s reconfigurable robots are inspired by snakes and lizards and this one can even reassemble itself when kicked apart. This trait could be especially useful for robots working in isolated places.
Atron, Maersk Institute
The Maersk Institute in Denmark has made self-containing modules that can connect, communicate, and share power to make a long, winding robot, dubbed ATRON. See ATRON modules learning to work together and develop modes of locomotion below.