Concept render of Roombots (via EPFL)
The Transformers: More than meets the eye. We have all seen the movies, watched the cartoons and even played with the toys. Could they one day become a reality? Yes but not in the giant hulking robotic fighters from Cybertron that can turn into luxury cars and super-sonic airplanes but rather in the form of self-configuring furniture. Scientists from the Swiss Biorobotics Laboratory (EPFL) are developing what they call ‘Roombots’ that will be able to reconfigure themselves on-demand into various pieces of furniture, including tables, chairs and other structures.
The baseball-sized robots are constructed of several half-spheres that can rotate independently from one another and feature embedded gripping claws to clasp and connect to each other or specialized platforms to create the furniture. Each robotic module has three independent motors for rotational movement (in 3 DOF) of the half-spheres, which allows for both locomotion and reconfiguration. They also feature their own battery power supply and are outfitted with Wi-Fi for communicating with each other as well as for programming them for the desired object needed.
An interesting facet of the Roombots is that they can affix themselves to objects such as lamps or end tables that have been outfitted with the specialized surfaces and transport them to where ever they are needed. For example, they can bring a chair over to where you need it or move your TV to a different room, which would be very beneficial to people with disabilities. The scientists are also developing methods to deploy the robotic furniture with one way being through the use of a tablet, where users would define the parameters of a room and the modules would configure themselves into furniture arrangements. This application would be perfect for use with Google’s Project Tango smartphone as it can instantly map user’s surrounding areas in 3D.
Imagine just walking through the room with the Roombots in tow and they instantly start morphing into the needed furniture. Another interface that’s being touched upon is through the use of voice commands where users can simply say ‘chair assemble in south-west corner of current room’. Still the scientists still have a long way to go before the Roombots are ready for market deployment. Movement of the robots still need to be smoothed-out and optimized when they are grouped together and the algorithms that define the sequence of motor rotations needed to form various shapes needs improvement.
All told, the scientists will iron-out those wrinkles over the next 15 to 20 years or so before they become available for their intended nature to raise the quality of life for the disabled. That may seem like an eternity but considering that they are true transformers the wait may very well be worth it.
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