As robots take on greater roles in society, one simple question remains without a satisfying answer: How are they going to move around?
Researchers have devised robots that run, walk, roll, hop and slither, but each method of locomotion comes with advantages and inherent drawbacks. Wheeled robots are great indoors, but get stuck when faced with even a single step. Legged robots are good at navigating rough terrain, but have difficulty moving quickly and efficiently. There won’t be one solution, in all likelihood, but rather a range of robots adapted to specific environments.
Watch Out For That Robot!
When it comes to industrial robots, especially those that work outside, one team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology has stolen an idea from Hollywood to devise a clever means of getting around. Their Tarzan-inspired robot swings from arm to arm from a thin cable, making its way across the lab much like the vine-loving hermit made his way through the dense jungle.
The robot could find use in farm fields as a robotic plant monitor, using both cameras and sensors to update farmers on the health of their crops. It will avoid getting stuck in uneven or muddy terrain and offers the additional benefit of leaving the plants undisturbed.
Sloths Come In Handy
The researchers say the design is actually a sped-up version of a sloth. They used the languid animals’ hand-under-hand locomotion to inform the robot’s movements, which relies on 3-D printed claws to grasp the wire. One arm grabs the wire and the free-hanging arm pumps back and forth to provide momentum. Once in motion, the robot takes advantage of the efficient swinging motion to reach up to grasp the wire and keep going. The researchers hope to add a solar panel in later versions of the robot to allow it to stay in the fields unassisted for days.
This isn’t the first attempt at building a swinging robot. A version was proposed in a paper as far back as 1994, and various university projects have offered their take on the concept. The main issue seems to be efficiently generating enough momentum to get moving, a task usually accomplished by a hanging arm that swings back and forth, much like a child pumping their legs on a swing. The Georgia Tech robot accomplishes the task much more quickly than most robots on YouTube, but it’s not clear if it can swing across the entire lab yet.
In any case, the best swinging robot out there at the moment is one made of just Legos and a gyroscope, which can twirl around its bar like a gymnast. Try that, Tarzan-bot.