Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Six tiny robots pull a car

We get almost daily reminders of just how far robotics is advancing.

Last month, there was a story about a team of six tiny robots that were able to move a 2-ton car. As an avid consumer of fiction, I've seen any number of depictions of robots lifting cars and tossing them. I have also seen similar portrayals of what robot swarms might theoretically do. But this is the real deal. What's additionally fascinating to me is that not only are these robots tiny, they aren't exactly acting in a "swarm" either. There are only six of them, but their strength is drawn from a few nifty facets of bio-mimicry.

The team at Stanford University that designed these robots were initially inspired by the sticky feet of geckos. A synthetic replication of this adhesive gives the bots considerable tugging and towing power through a force process similar to friction. To wit:

"...each robot can apply 14 lbs. (62 Newtons) of shear force when operating at peak. By contrast, a rubber friction base would provide 500 times less force."

There is also the advantage of a team of them working together. Just as is seen in nature with ants and other insects, nature designs tiny things to cooperate and lift objects many times their size. The same principle applies here, although the actual design didn't come about overnight. The development group experimented with fast-moving robots. As it turned out, this speed meant a sacrifice of teamwork. Slowing down the devices allowed for synchronous movement, teamwork, and thereby a full tugging capacity.

As one ossified by the pragmatic might ask, what are the real-life applications of these things? They don't fly like drones and they don't tell jokes. No, but they can tug, crawl, and likely get into hard to reach places. That would make them ideal for rescue work in the aftermath of a disaster. If you are ever to have the misfortune of finding yourself beneath the rubble of such an event, you might one day be quite thankful to see these little robots.

If you're unimpressed by that, there's always the RoboRoach.

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