Robots are usually built to avoid bumping into things. But this flying robot was designed to smack into obstacles and keep on going.
The GimBall robot, created by roboticists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, is a quadrotor encased in a spherical, flexible cage that protects its innards. Propellers give the machine lift and fins are used for steering.
Other robots are typically programmed to sense their surrounding in order to see or feel objects they need to avoid. But GimBall simply flies off into the unknown. In fact, the researchers tested the robot in a forest in Switzerland, telling the bot to go from point A to point B. Whenever it hit a tree — which was often — it just got up and started again.
The robot used gyroscopes to track its position and orientation and when it collided with an obstacle, it simply regained its balance, revved up its propellers, checked its direction with the gyroscopes and a simple compass and got back on its way.
One of the designers, EPFL PhD student Adrien Briod, said in a press release that insects inspired the idea. When a fly hits a wall, it just bounces off and keeps flying. The fly doesn’t need to map out the environment in detail.
For robots, that can be crucial. If a robot goes into a collapsed building, the environment inside isn’t predictable, and using sensors to construct a map is processor-intensive. A robot that can just bounce along and not worry about it is in a better position to get to people who need help. Sensors also add weight, which flying robots can do without.
The EPFL will present GimBall at the IREX conference in Tokyo, Japan from Nov. 5 to 9.
Photo: The designers, Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski (left) and Adrien Briod (right) with the Gimball. Credit: EPFL / Alain Herzog