Robot Update 014
But thus far, humanoid robots have been underachievers. Although they are near miracles of coordination and technology, they are inevitably slow, awkward and expensive. Even the most out of shape human can literally run circles around our most agile high tech humanoid robot. There is another approach now being studied that may allow for societally integrated robots, while the humanoids are still finding their stride. It's called Ballbot, and it is today's robot.
Ballbot is the fruit of the labors of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. Lead by Professor Ralph Hollis, the engineering team developed a robot that stands and travels by balancing itself on a single steel sphere. The robot was built to human dimensions, tall and thin by robot standards. It's 1.5 meters tall (four foot nine), is 400mm in diameter (16 inches), and ways 45 Kilograms (just under 100 pounds). Ballbot works on a principle similar to the old track balls and ball computer mice, but in reverse. Rollers powered by a drive motor spin against the single steel drive ball, and act to keep Ballbot upright and propel it in any direction, without the need to turn or corner.
The robot is basically a cylinder that consists of three aluminum channels that hold up a series of circular shelves, like a book shelf or layer cake. Each shelf contains a different component. One houses Ballbot's 200MHz Pentium brain and 802.11b Wifi link. Another holds the 48V lead acid battery that gives Ballbot a few hours of operating time. About halfway up the robot sits the IMU, an Inertial Measuring Unit that emulates a vertical gyroscope and provides Ballbot with his remarkable sense of balance and high center of gravity. Three "leg" pylons deploy when Ballbot is without power, preventing it from falling over in the event of a malfunction.
Due to Ballbots layered and modular construction, it can be reconfigured and modified without requiring a redesign. This also makes Ballbot inexpensive to build and maintain, another trick the humanoid robots have yet to master. The next incarnation of Ballbot will see the addition of a head with a variety of sensors, and a pair of articulated arms to the chassis. This will increase Ballbots ability to stay balanced, and also ad a whole new level of functionality to the Ballbot framework. In a combination of simplicity and genius, Professor Hollis and his team have created a machine that can travel effortlessly in spaces made specifically for humans, and do so without unnecessary complication or expense.
Professor Hollis has been building and designing robots since before robotics was even a recognized field of study. Have a look at the Microdynamics Physics Laboratory project page for the Ballbot to find additional information that the team has provided. This includes addition hi-rez pictures, white papers, and a couple of neat videos of Ballbot in action. Still there are miles to go before Professor Hollis and his team can sleep. "We want to make Ballbot much faster, more dynamic and graceful," he said. "But there are many hurdles to overcome, like responding to unplanned contact with its surroundings, planning motion in cluttered spaces and safety issues."
So before we finish, lets get the Dalek jokes out of the way. Certainly even the best designed robot which balances on a single sphere will be incapable of navigating stairs. This is something that true integration into our living and working spaces will require. But with the minor addition of more ramps and elevators in everyday locations, the world could easily accept a host of rolling Ballbots. It will have the added bonus of making the world a nicer place for Murderballers and the occasional legendary physicist too. [via Slashdot]
"Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?" - Miyagi Sensei