Four different exoskeletons for a Primer robot

Robot can shed and rebuild ‘exoskeletons’ to perform different tasks

Image credit: MIT CSAIL

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a simple robot capable of dressing itself in different folded ‘exoskeletons’ to roll, float on water, glide or walk.

On the manufacturing line, robots are limited to just one task. However, even smarter robots with multiple functions, or those with machine-learning abilities which enable them to learn new tasks are limited by their fixed forms.

Now, researchers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT have created what they call a “superhero” robot capable of switching between a range of exteriors: changing its shape to complete different tasks.

“If we want robots to help us do things, it’s not very efficient to have a different one for each task,” said Professor Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL, who led the project to MIT News. “With this metamorphosis-inspired approach, we can extend the capabilities of a single robot by giving it different ‘accessories’ to use in different situations.”

The core of the robot is the ‘Primer’ robot. The Primer comes in the form of a small box, which has limited movement (only being able to launch itself around with jerky movements) and is controlled with magnetic fields. In order to perform useful tasks, it can arm itself with a “self-donning robotic wardrobe”.

In order to dress itself appropriately for the job, the robot jumps onto a rectangular polymer sheet, pre-creased for different purposes. When this is heated, the sheet folds – inspired by origami – into a three-dimensional shape better suited for the task at hand. In less than a minute, the Primer can become ‘Walk-bot’, ‘Wheel-bot’, ‘Boat-bot’ or ‘Glider-bot’.

Once it has performed its task – for instance, carrying a load – it jumps into a dish of water, which causes the folded sheet to dissolve from its body. The Primer is then ready for its next task.

According to the researchers, the robot is capable of doubling up exoskeletons to expand its abilities: for instance, it could wear its ‘Walk-bot’ skeleton at the same time as a larger skeleton in order to walk with a heavier load.

Although there are many existing origami-inspired robots capable of changing their form, this robot is unusual in that it can switch between many different forms, rather than simply fold and unfold. Some swarm robots are capable of merging and splitting themselves as a group to shift between different overall forms.

Having already succeeded in giving the robot four different forms of motion, they will experiment with creating new exoskeletons which allow it to burrow, camouflage itself and drive through water. They hope that its open-source design could attract other researchers – or even hobbyists – to create exoskeletons for other purposes.

The researchers hope that the robot could have applications in space exploration. A compact, versatile robot placed on a space station with these abilities could take on different external forms in order to complete a range of tasks and move across a variety of surfaces. This would mean that a single robot could perform the tasks which could otherwise require a team of different robots.

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