Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Eight-legged, soft-bodied robot

What has eight mechanical arms and is used to explore underwater regions from afar?

Ask Italian biorobotocist Matteo Cianchetti this same question in a year’s time and he’ll show you his brainchild. For a few years now, Cianchetti has been working on designing and building a soft-bodied robot that looks works like the common octopus.

So far, his team have built two arms - they stretch, bend, fit through small holes and grasp objects – which are moved using a playstation controller (which looks simple to use, but looks can be deceiving: it took me several tries before I could grab the moving object using the controller).

Currently, however, most of mechanics for controlling the octopus arms is sitting outside the tank. Cianchetti said the mission for the next year is the “miniaturize, optimize, and embed it all in one body”. Once the eight-legged robot has a body, it will be able to push and pull itself around on coastal floors, retrieving whatever precious objects have not been accessible so far. The researchers don’t know how deep the first robot will be able to go, but as exploration in the dark depths of the sea is incredibly difficult and a smorgasbord of undiscovered ecology, I hope this will soon follow.

One neat feature of the design is that a robot arm wraps around an object automatically. Cianchetti calls it ‘self-adapting grasping’, and what it means for underwater exploration that “you do not have to exactly where the object is in order to grasp it,” he said. The problem of not knowing the location of an object in underwater exploration is a common one – particularly in the depths, where light starts to fade and cameras become useless.

When the octopus arm touches the object, it will encircle the object to grasp it firmly. In traditional robots, there are rigid parts that could damage the precious objects being retrieved. The octopus robot, therefore, would be useful for applications such as underwater archaeology, Cianchetti said.

What everyone at fet11 surely wants to know, however, is whether it will be able to predict the outcome of the next World Cup. But, being an Italian octopus, I’m not sure I’d be willing to believe it anyhow.

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