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That’s No Transformer: It’s SuperBot

02/22/07
Videos demonstrate marked progress in the design of robotic, Lego-like units created by USC’s Information Sciences Institute.
By Eric Mankin
The robotic system includes a power supply, micro-controllers, sensors and six connecting elements.

Photo/Wei-Min Shen
A researcher at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute recently reported significant progress in developing “SuperBot,” identical modular units that plug into each other to create robots that can stand, crawl, wiggle and even roll.

We-Min Shen’s Feb. 13 presentation took place at the Space Technology and Applications International Forum 2007 in Albuquerque, N.M.

SuperBot consists of Lego-like but autonomous robotic modules that can reconfigure into different systems for different tasks, he said. Examples of configurable systems include rolling tracks or wheels (for efficient travel), spiders or centipedes (for climbing), snakes (for burrowing in ground), long arms (for inspection and repair in space) and devices that can fly in micro-gravity environment.

Each module is a complete robotic system with a power supply, micro-controllers, sensors, communication, three degrees of freedom and six connecting faces (front, back, left, right, up and down) to dynamically connect to other modules, he explained.

“This design allows flexible bending, docking and continuous rotation,” Shen said. A single module can move forward, back, left, right, flip over and rotate as a wheel. Modules can communicate with each other and support arbitrary module reshuffling during their operation, he added.

“The modules have both internal and external sensors for monitoring self-status and environmental parameters. They can form arbitrary configurations (graphs) and can control these configurations for different functionality such as locomotion, manipulation and self-repair.”

Shen illustrated his presentation with video of the SuperBot in action.

He and his colleagues and students made the video in just one week after completing the mechanics and electronics hardware for the latest batch of SuperBot modules at the beginning of February.

“The fact that SuperBot can achieve so much in so short a time demonstrates the unique value of modular, multifunctional and self-reconfigurable robots,” Shen said.