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Keep It Simple, Scientists: Flexible Wheel Robot Heralds a New Movement in Robotics

Keep It Simple, Scientists: Flexible Wheel Robot Heralds a New Movement in Robotics

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While it seems that only the whiz-bang-iest robots in the field these days are the ones getting attention, they are also the most complicated. And, as we all know, the more complicated a thing is, the more opportunities it has to fail. This is especially true in robotics (DARPA competition blooper reel, anyone?). This has led some researchers to simplify their approaches; stripping away the human characteristics and the multipurpose appendages, to create robots that do one thing really well.
 
One such bot is the “Deformation-driven rolling robot with a soft outer shell,” invented by Yoichi Masuda and Masato Ishikawa of Osaka University, and presented in a paper at this year’s IEEE International Conference on Advanced Intelligent Mechatronics. Their robot is structured after one of our simplest machines, the wheel.

“Instead of motors and gears, however, the wheel surrounding this robot is made from a soft material that’s squished and stretched by a set of four wires connected to an inner core. It’s still mostly dependent on gravity to get around, as the robot is essentially repeatedly falling over as its changing shape makes it unstable. But that also greatly reduces the amount of power it needs to move.”
 
This robot might mark a trend among experts in the field, away from generality and into specificity of purpose. But this little rolly guy’s simplicity doesn’t mean it’s single-purpose: the interior can hold up to two 360° cameras and a multitude of sensors, and it could be sent into a warzone, an industrial accident, or a natural phenomenon like a volcano with equal impunity. It would be able to transmit a great deal of information about a situation before its destruction – which would not be a hardship because of its low cost and ease of building!
 
Though I’ll miss potentially having my own personal protocol droid hanging around, this robotics concept does seem far more practical, and possible. I like that the calming adage “simple is good” extends as far as the helper machines of the future. And I also like how it leaves room for us and our human intelligence: We have hope again of not being rendered obsolete!  (We’ll see how it goes…!).