SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
San Diego, CALIF. — The science of robotics is starting to catch up with Saturday morning cartoons. Researchers at USC’s Information Sciences Institute have created working robotic units that bear a striking resemblance to animated sci-fi’s Transformers – small, simple machines with the ability to knit themselves into complex devices.
While they can’t yet turn themselves from tanks to airplanes to submarines, CONRO (short for “configurable robots”) units can autonomously seek and find each other and, when combined, work as a unified system. Soon they may even be creeping through crevices in earthquake debris or braving flames at a fire scene. Once inside, they might assemble into devices that can carry cameras, water or medicine to people trapped in the rubble. Or they could even jack up rocks and clear an escape path. Other possible tasks include surveillance work or scouting on battlefields.
Each 3-inch-long CONRO unit consists of a few small electric motors, a computer chip and an “active end” that can move back and forth, and up and down. Special plugs on the active end fit into receptacles on the front of other devices.
The onboard computer chip directs the robot’s activities. Each unit’s chip can also receive and send instructions to the processors in its sister units using infrared transmitters.
ISI researchers Andres Castao and Wei-Min Shen are currently creating software for the CONRO system, using two separate approaches.
Castano, who designed the units and built many with his own hands, pursues a holistic pattern, in which a single program totally guides assembled robots through their activities.
Shen, pursues an alternative strategy, using software modules called “hormones” by analogy with biological chemical messengers, with each hormone designed to elicit a certain behavior, and action by consolidated CONRO units being accomplished by orchestrating hormones in different orders and permutations.
The CONRO team recently succeeded in getting a snake of six modules to find and link to its own tail, forming a ring capable of standing on its side and rolling forward. In another eight-unit configuration, the CONRO units form an insect-like creature that walks on six legs, moving three at a time.
ISI team leader Peter Will, who directs the ConRo project, notes that creation of truly capable “metamorphing” robots will require many improvements, including better chips that run on less power. The software demands are daunting, too.
“The robots must recognize the conditions that dictate a change in form, must determine the proper new form to assume, and be able to do so quickly and efficiently under confused, real world conditions.” says Will. “These are major challenges. Nevertheless, the rewards for successful implementation of this technology make a vigorous effort worthwhile, and we are cheered by the successes we have so far achieved.” The CONRO research is supported by DARPA, the central R&D organization of the U.S. Department of Defense. A video of the “CONRO” units in action is available online at http://www.isi.edu/conro .