Meet PufferBot: An Expandable Flying Robot
Researchers have built a Robot than can Expand and Contract
Robotics‘ field is full of potential; hence, it often brings astonishing yet enticing applications to the table now and then. Though robotics today is no longer limited to gigantic arms at assembly and packing lines, it has given birth to Robotics as a service (RaaS), cobots, drones, and many more interesting usages. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute and the University of Calgary have developed an actuated, expandable structure that can be used to fabricate shape-changing aerial robots. In a paper pre-published on arXiv, they introduced a new robot, dubbed PufferBot, which was built using this unique and innovative structure. This innovation is also set to be presented at the 2020 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robotics and Systems (IROS).
In an effort to come up with different strategies that would allow roboticists to change the structure of drones, the team of Hooman Hedayati, Ryo Suzuki, Daniel Leithinger, and Daniel Szafir took inspiration from pufferfish to develop an actuated, expandable structure that lets it quickly shift its shape by expanding and contracting. It has a 3D printed scissor structure with a 1DOF actuator with a rack & pinion mechanism. The approach enables these drones to fly while taking less damage in case of a collision. This structure is based on an expandable frame and has an actuator with one degree of freedom. Thus, it has many advantages over more conventional drone designs. For instance, it can limit the damage caused by a robot’s collision with objects in its surroundings, which also replicates the expansion of life-saving airbags in vehicles. So, when the drone is flying through a cluttered space or if it is about to collide with an object, the actuator can deploy the structure to protect the drone by covering its propellers and internal electronics. But, it does not mean it necessarily decrease a drone’s maneuverability.
The team says that since it provides robots with the ability to significantly change their size and appearance (by shrinking and expanding), the structure could also serve as a useful communication tool. For example, a drone could be programmed to expand when it senses a specific type of threat or stimulus in its environment, to warn humans from a distance. In conclusion, PufferBot could prove particularly useful for completing missions in environments where robots have a higher chance of colliding with other objects.
Hedayati says, “From our point of view, robots that can change their shape and size are relatively underexplored in the field of robotics, while some interesting and related developments are ongoing in the area of tensegrity robots and reconfigurable rovers.”
According to him, one of the major goals of this research is to address a longstanding problem in robotics, which is that robots remain extremely difficult for people to work with. Other than this, issues like human inexperience with robots, safety issues that robots introduce, and a lack of consideration regarding how humans and robots can effectively communicate were considered when designing Pufferbot.
Check the video of Pufferbot here.