They look a little like Legos on steroids and indeed, that's how they act. Called Superbots, these robots are made up of identical modular units that plug into one another to create robots that can stand, crawl, wiggle and roll.
The robots are being developed mainly to carry out multiple complex tasks, such as assembly, inspection, maintenance, habitat construction, surface landing, and exploration in space and on planet surfaces. Perhaps their paramount feature is flexibility: The different modules can be connected to let a robot handle a variety of tasks, rather than have that robot dedicated to a single task. The traditional approach of building separate robots for separate tasks is no longer adequate for affordable space exploration, researchers said.
In a statement Thursday, one of the Superbot developers, Wei-Min Shen of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute , said, "Each module is a complete robotic system and has a power supply, microcontrollers, sensors, communication, three degrees of freedom, and six connecting faces (front, back, left, right, up and down) to dynamically connect to other modules.
"This design allows flexible bending, docking, and continuous rotation. A single module can move forward, back, left, right; flip over; and rotate as a wheel. Modules can communicate with each other for totally distributed control, and can support arbitrary module-reshuffling during their operation."
The Superbot project will be built on the first spiral of the development completed in the last decade with small-scale, earth oriented, self-reconfigurable prototype robots by the proposing team, with total support of more than US$8 million from DARPA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and NASA.
Another goal of the Superbot is to let NASA reuse robotic components to reduce costs and simplify operations and the logistics trail. The interchangeability of the robots' components will decrease the need for redundant parts, thus reducing payload mass, and enhance mission reliability and safety by allowing robust reconfigurability in times of failure, said Shen in a white paper.