Combine off-the-shelf insulation foam and modular robot components and you get a self-assembling robot that could be fit to a variety of tasks.
The Modular Robotics Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, in a project led by Shai Revzen, has created a robot that can be assembled from foam that hardens and pieces that allow the robot to move. The “foambot” looks ungainly, and it is. But once you have a shape — and a task — in mind, the foam sprayer can lay down a body plan that fits.
For example, lining up a bunch of the actuators (the modular robot parts) can create a snake-like bot that can move into small, narrow spaces, while arranging them in another pattern allows for a more conventional four-legged arrangement.
A key advantage of this kind of construction is that you don’t need to know what your robot has to do beforehand. Robots today are, for the most part, designed with very specific tasks in mind. Think of a Roomba –- it is designed solely to vacuum floors. But if one is sending a robot someplace where it isn’t clear what you need, then it helps to be able to decide on the task and build on the spot.
The robot’s parts are CKBot modules, which can be taken apart and reassemble themselves, because the components can recognize where they are in relation to each other. The foam is commercially available insulation, and it turns out such foams are a great material. Revzen noted in an email that they expand to 30 times their initial size, and are actually quite strong. That means that the apparatus building a robot can be smaller than what it is building.
This has applications in areas such as space exploration, where building a robot that can crawl, slither or climb allows for exploring an unknown landscape, or rescue operations, where the situation is unknown and it isn’t clear what you need a robot to do (crawl through small spaces or clamber over rubble, or both).