The Future is Here: Roombot Transforming Furniture

roombots_tableRobotic arms and other mechanisms have long been used to make or assemble furniture; but thus far, no one has ever created robots that are capable of becoming furniture. However, Swiss researchers are aiming to change that with Roombots, a brand of reconfigurable robotic modules that connect to each other to change shape and transform into different types of furniture, based on the needs and specifications of users.

Created by the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the self-assembling Roombots attach to each other via connectors which enables them to take on the desired shape. The team’s main goal is to create self-assembling interactive furniture that can be used in a variety of ways. They were designed primarily for the sake of helping the disabled or elderly by morphing to suit their needs.

roombots_unpackLike LEGO bricks, Roombots can be stacked upon each other to create various structures and/or combined with furniture and other objects, changing not only their shape, but also and functionality. For instance, a person lying down on a Roombot bed could slowly be moved into a seated position, or a table could scoot over to a corner or tilt itself to help a book slide into a person’s hands. The team has solved a number of significant milestones, such as the having the Roombots move freely, to bring all this multi-functionality closer.

Each 22 cm-long module (which is made up of four half-spheres) has a wireless connection, a battery, and three motors that allow the module to pivot with three degrees of freedom. Each modules also has retractable “claws” that are used to attach to other pieces to form larger structures. With a series of rotations and connections, the modules can change shape and become any of a variety of objects. A special surface with holes adapted to the Roombots’ mechanical claws can also allow the modules to anchor to a wall or floor.

roombots_configThe Roombots can even climb up a wall or over a step, when the surface is outfitted with connector plates. They’re are also capable of picking up connector plates and arranging them to form, say, a table’s surface. Massimo Vespignani, a PhD student at BioRob, explained the purpose of this design and the advantages in a recent interview with Gizmag:

We start from a group of Roombot modules that might be stacked together for storage. The modules detach from this pile to form structures of two or more modules. At this point they can start moving around the room in what we call off-grid locomotion…

A single module can autonomously reach any position on a plane (this being on the floor, walls, or ceiling), and overcome a concave edge. In order to go over convex edges two modules need to collaborate…

The advantage would be that the modules can be tightly packed together for transportation and then can reconfigure into any type of structure (for example a robotic manipulator)…

We can ‘augment’ existing furniture by placing compatible connectors on it and attaching Roombots modules to allow it to move around the house.

roombots_boxThe range of applications for these kind of robotics is virtually infinite. For example, as seen in the video below, a series of Roombots as feet on a table that not only let it move around the room and come to the owner, but adjust its height as well. Auke Ijspeert, head of the Biorob, envisions that this type of customization could be used for physically challenged people who could greatly benefit from furniture that adapts to their needs and movements.

As he said in a recent statement:

It could be very useful for disabled individuals to be able to ask objects to come closer to them, or to move out of the way. [They could also be used as] ‘Lego blocks’ [for makers to] find their own function and applications.

Meanwhile, design students at ENSCI Les Ateliers in France have come up with several more ideas for uses of Roombots, such as flower pots that can move from window to window around a building and modular lighting components and sound systems. Similar to the MIT’s more complex self-assembling M-Blocks – which are programmable cube robots with no external moving parts – Roombots represent a step in the direction of self-assembling robots that are capable of taking on just about any task.

roombotsFor instance, imagine a series of small robotic modules that could be used for tasks like repairing bridges or buildings during emergencies. Simply release them from their container and feed them the instructions, and they assemble to prop up an earthquake-stricken structure or a fallen bridge. At the same time, it is a step in the direction of smart matter and nanotechnology, a futuristic vision that sees the very building blocks of everyday objects as programmable, reconfiguring materials that can shape or properties as needed.

To get a closer, more detailed idea of what the Roombot can do, check out the video below from EPFL News:


The Future is Here: 4-D Printing

4dprintingmaterial3-D printing has already triggered a revolution in manufacturing by allowing people to determine the length, width and depth of an object that they want to create. But thanks to research being conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a fourth dimension can now be included – time. Might sounds like science fiction, until you realize that the new manufacturing process will make it possible to print objects that change their shape at a given time.

Led by Prof. H. Jerry Qi, the scientific team have developed a “4D printing” process in which shape-memory polymer fibers are deposited in key areas of a composite material item as it’s being printed. By carefully controlling factors such as the location and orientation of the fibers, those areas of the item will fold, stretch, curl or twist in a predictable fashion when exposed to a stimulus such as water, heat or mechanical pressure.

4dprintingmaterial1The concept was proposed earlier this year by MIT’s Skylar Tibbits, who used his own 4D printing process to create a variety of small self-assembling objects. Martin L. Dunn of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who collaborated with Qi on the latest research, explained the process:

We advanced this concept by creating composite materials that can morph into several different, complicated shapes based on a different physical mechanism.

This means that one 4D-printed object could change shape in different ways, depending on the type of stimulus to which it was exposed. That functionality could make it possible to print a photovoltaic panel in a flat shape, expose it to water to cause it to fold up for shipping, and then expose it to heat to make it fold out to yet another shape that’s optimal for catching sunlight.

4dprintingmaterial2This principle may sound familiar, as it is the basis of such sci-fi concepts as polymorphic alloys or objects. It’s also the idea behind the Milli-Motein, the shape-shifting machine invented by MITs Media Labs late last year. But ultimately, it all comes back to organic biology, using structural biochemistry and the protein cell as a blueprint to create machinery made of “smart” materials.

The building block of all life, proteins can assume an untold number of shapes to fulfill an organism’s various functions, and are the universal workforce to all of life. By combining that concept with the world of robotics and manufactured products, we could be embarking upon an era of matter and products that can assume different shapes as needed and on command.

papertab-touchAnd if these materials can be scaled to the microscopic level, and equipped with tiny computers, the range of functions they will be able to do will truly stagger the mind. Imagine furniture made from materials that can automatically respond to changes in pressure and weight distribution. Or paper that is capable of absorbing your pencil scratches and then storing it in its memory, or calling up image displays like a laptop computer?

And let’s not forget how intrinsic this is to the field of nanotechnology. Smarter, more independent materials that can change shape and respond to changes in their environment, mainly so they can handle different tasks, is all part of the Fabrication Revolution that is expected to explode this century. Here’s hoping I’m alive to see it all. Sheldon Cooper isn’t the only one waiting on the Technological Singularity!