Mechanical Movers


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Fictional droids like C3PO mimic the forms of living things, but real robots are not so constrained. At the recent International Conference on Robotics and Automation, held in Detroit, designers showed the latest improvements on old-fashioned arms and legs.

Cyclops, created by Brian Chemel and his colleagues from Carnegie Mellon, moves unlike any land animal: It rolls. The hardy, ball-shaped robot is designed to aid soldiers or police in hostile territory. Toss one through a window and it can roll across almost any kind of surface while staying out of view. It can send back video as it goes, or hide to conduct surreptitious surveillance.

For greater versatility, Shigeo Hirose and Gen Endo of Tokyo Institute of Technology built the Roller Walker. On rough ground, the robot walks. On flat terrain, it flips its puck-shaped feet sideways to form wheels and skates along with graceful breaststroke motions.

Better grasping was the impetus for Goldfinger, from Ian Gravagne and Ian Walker of Clemson University. This robot gripper can outmaneuver a human hand with its two thumbs. The extra opposable digit, similar to a raptor's claw, gives Goldfinger a dexterous and tight grip.

Octofungi, a sculpture by artist Yves Amu Klein of Arizona, has eight arms activated by a shape-memory alloy. They can extend and rock from side to side like the tentacles of a sea anemone. Eight electronic eyes, hooked to a neural network computer, set the arms in motion when they sense changes in the environment. Robots are even adapting to life in the water. Amoebot, built by I-Ming Chen and Hsi-Shang Li of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, could silently perform underwater inspection or observation. It controls its motion by selectively filling the balloons stored within its flexible skin, pulsating seductively like a giant amoeba.

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