A Darthmouth College science team has developed soft, modifiable robotic modules called ‘StarBlocks’ that can be snapped together to form new structures with new functionalities. The resulting soft robots can then carry weights, move, grab objects and transport loads.
Depending on the area of application, the module blocks developed by the scientists can take on a form appropriate to the purpose, the researchers write in the study “StarBlocks: Soft Actuated Self-Connecting Blocks for Building Deformable Lattice Structures”, which is published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. The scientists took ants as a model, which in certain situations can build bridges out of their bodies cooperatively or join together to form watertight rafts.
“We wanted to design robotic blocks that, like the ants, can combine in different ways to perform different functions,” says Luyang Zhao, a computer science graduate student at the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies and one of the researchers involved in the study.
The result is a module that has a star-shaped skeleton. It was made using a 3D printing process from a material that combines the properties of plastic and rubber. It’s lightweight and stretchy.
Mechanical muscles in the form of springs are integrated into the skeleton. They consist of a special alloy that can be deformed by electrical heating and immediately returns to its original shape when it cools down. They move the structure of the skeleton so that the block can change shape, size and move. The individual StarBlocks can then be connected to one another using magnets at the corners.
New robotic structures made of moving blocks
The researchers tested the concept by assembling a variety of different structures from the StarBlocks. These included a dome-shaped tent, a rolling wheel and a four-legged robotic dog that can perform different gaits. In addition, the researchers created a robotic arm capable of grasping and moving smaller objects. In addition, they formed a chain that could create a wave-like motion to transport a ball.
The individual modules can combine themselves into structures, as the researchers report. A computer-aided evaluation of the position of the individual blocks using a camera enabled the individual StarBlocks to move towards one another and connect with one another.
According to the researchers, it is the first modular system of its kind that can be reconfigured and used flexibly to fulfill different tasks. “These tasks involve both locomotion and manipulation, which is also very unusual,” says Devin Balkcom, professor of computer science at Darthmouth College.
The robots created from the modules would combine the advantages of different systems. Its modularity makes it versatile and easy to repair. In addition, they combine the flexibility of soft robots with the structural capabilities of solid blocks.
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