For years, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University experimented with a snake-like robot that could crawl through pipes and climb up trees.
Gradually, their robot evolved into motorized modules, each with its own processor, that can be assembled in various configurations, such as a six-legged insect-like machine they call the Snake Monster.
Howie Choset, a professor at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, said researchers were "able to put the modules together as easy as Lego, but there is a lot going on underneath the hood to allow that to happen.”
What happens "underneath the hood" is the most interesting part. The modules are able to communicate with each other, in order to coordinate the robot’s movements.
End modules with wheels instead of feet allow the robot to move faster on smooth surfaces. Modules may also be equipped with a camera that can survey the surroundings.
Another feature is a so-called “master-and-slave” system, through which an operator can manipulate a robotic twin, remotely controlling the twin and even feeling the resistance it encounters.
Choset said the robot is ready for real-life testing. "That robot is field-deployable," he said. "You can take that robot and throw it around. It's robust. You can kick it, and it is still going to work.”
Modular robotic arms can be programmed for various tasks, including feeding handicapped persons.
Researchers are already working on other modular attachments, such as force-sensing feet or tank-like tracks that will allow customizing robots for different tasks.
Scientists say such machines could someday help in search-and-rescue operations.