Transformers: Robots... at least it tries: Watch boffins' Optimus Dime rearrange on the fly

Its creators see this shape-shifter droid as more like Big Hero 6 than cheesy Autobots


Mechanical engineering brainiacs at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania in the US have demonstrated how autonomous, modular robots can reconfigure themselves to accomplish specific tasks in an unknown place.

In a paper published Wednesday in Science Robotics, Mark Campbell, Jonathan Daudelin, Gangyuan Jing, and Hadas Kress-Gazit (Cornell), with Tarik Tosun and Mark Yim (UPenn) describe the system architecture, software, and hardware they used to create a self-configuring modular robot that can carry out missions in previously unmapped environments.

The project makes use of a modular robot system called SMORES-EP, which stands for Self-Assembling MOdular Robot for Extreme Shapeshifting, with EP referring to the Electro-Permanent magnets that enable module connection.

Fiction meets fact

SMORES-EP represents a small step toward realizing the dream of robots with the shape-changing capacity of fiction's Transformers, though Hadas Kress-Gazit, associate professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said, if anything, her inspiration for the project was Disney's Big Hero 6. After The Register let slip our lack of enthusiasm for the Transformer films, Kress-Gazit admitted to similar ennui.

Building on the bot boffins' prior work, the paper focuses on getting the modular robot to adapt to its environment through motion planning and sensor feedback.

"The strength of modular robots and our contribution in this paper regarding autonomous execution in unknown environments results in a robotic system that is extremely flexible and that can adjust its shape and control depending on the task and on the environment," explained Kress-Gazit in an email to The Register.

"These strengths become more pronounced in domains that are unstructured and that require the robot to perform tasks that might rapidly change."

She suggests planetary exploration and disaster relief would be appropriate applications for the technology, once it's more mature.

Using Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) software, the robot constructs a model of its surroundings, creating waypoints for exploration and identifying environmental features that relate to its assigned task.A video posted to YouTube hints at the possibilities, so you can see for yourself how it works.

Youtube Video

"Based on the task requirements and observed environment, the high-level planner selects an appropriate behavior for the robot from the Library," the paper explains.

"If the current configuration of the robot cannot execute the desired behavior, the high-level planner will command the Reconfiguration subsystem to transform the robot into a configuration that can execute the behavior."

Shapeshift while you work

Kress-Gazit said that the robot's task involved looking for green and pink objects and bringing them back to the zone denoted with blue. The researchers, she said, did not specify the location of the objects, how the robot should find them, or how to find the drop-off zone. Instead, the robot's behavior was informed by the data it gathered during its exploration.

The video shows how the robot's cube-shaped modules rearrange themselves into what the researchers call the Proboscis configuration – a linear, snout-like arrangement – in order to retrieve an object located in a narrow gap between two other objects. The bot's library also contains Car, Scorpion and Snake configurations.

metal

Self-forming liquid metal just like a TERMINATOR emerges from China lab

READ MORE

"The library of shapes and action (what we refer to as configurations and gaits) encodes in it assumptions about the robot's environment (for example, stair height) and limitations on the robots abilities (for example it can only move forward but not turn in a specific shape)," said Kress-Gazit. "Since we are composing the behavior, automatically, from this library, the robot will not attempt to do something it cannot."

The researchers created the library using a Unity-based tool they devised called VSPARC (Verification, Simulation, Programming And Robot Construction), which allows the construction and testing of modular robot designs and behaviors, and the importation of said code to SMORES-EP hardware.

Among the advances in this stage of the research project is the implementation of parametric behaviors. Where a static behavior might allow a particular maneuver that gets repeated the same way every time, parametric behavior considers parameters, such as turning angle and driving velocity, for a greater range of motion.

Looking ahead, Kress-Gazit said she just received funding from the National Science Foundation for a new project that will attempt to synthesize both the control and shape of a robot given a set of modules and a task.

"Another interesting direction is how we can automate the creation of the library (the shapes and controls)," she said. "Currently the library components are designed by people, but we can harness different optimization and machine learning approaches to create new candidate shapes and controls." ®


Other stories you might like

  • Train once, run anywhere, almost: Qualcomm's drive to bring AI to its phone, PC chips
    Software toolkit offered to save developers time, effort, battery power

    Qualcomm knows that if it wants developers to build and optimize AI applications across its portfolio of silicon, the Snapdragon giant needs to make the experience simpler and, ideally, better than what its rivals have been cooking up in the software stack department.

    That's why on Wednesday the fabless chip designer introduced what it's calling the Qualcomm AI Stack, which aims to, among other things, let developers take AI models they've developed for one device type, let's say smartphones, and easily adapt them for another, like PCs. This stack is only for devices powered by Qualcomm's system-on-chips, be they in laptops, cellphones, car entertainment, or something else.

    While Qualcomm is best known for its mobile Arm-based Snapdragon chips that power many Android phones, the chip house is hoping to grow into other markets, such as personal computers, the Internet of Things, and automotive. This expansion means Qualcomm is competing with the likes of Apple, Intel, Nvidia, AMD, and others, on a much larger battlefield.

    Continue reading
  • Arrogant, subtle, entitled: 'Toxic' open source GitHub discussions examined
    Developer interactions sometimes contain their own kind of poison

    Analysis Toxic discussions on open-source GitHub projects tend to involve entitlement, subtle insults, and arrogance, according to an academic study. That contrasts with the toxic behavior – typically bad language, hate speech, and harassment – found on other corners of the web.

    Whether that seems obvious or not, it's an interesting point to consider because, for one thing, it means technical and non-technical methods to detect and curb toxic behavior on one part of the internet may not therefore work well on GitHub, and if you're involved in communities on the code-hosting giant, you may find this research useful in combating trolls and unacceptable conduct.

    It may also mean systems intended to automatically detect and report toxicity in open-source projects, or at least ones on GitHub, may need to be developed specifically for that task due to their unique nature.

    Continue reading
  • Trio accused of selling $88m of pirated Avaya licenses
    Rogue insider generated keys, resold them to blow the cash on gold, crypto, and more, prosecutors say

    Three people accused of selling pirate software licenses worth more than $88 million have been charged with fraud.

    The software in question is built and sold by US-based Avaya, which provides, among other things, a telephone system called IP Office to small and medium-sized businesses. To add phones and enable features such as voicemail, customers buy the necessary software licenses from an Avaya reseller or distributor. These licenses are generated by the vendor, and once installed, the features are activated.

    In charges unsealed on Tuesday, it is alleged Brad Pearce, a 46-year-old long-time Avaya customer service worker, used his system administrator access to generate license keys tens of millions of dollars without permission. Each license could sell for $100 to thousands of dollars.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022