SuperBot Modular Robot Connects With NASA

SuperBot is a modular, multifunctional and reconfigurable robot, designed by Dr. Wei-Min Shen and his team at the Information Sciences Institute at USC. You might say that SuperBot is really a set of individual robots that work together to move around and solve problems. Dr. Shen has been awarded more than $8 million in grants from NASA, DARPA and the NSF to continue his research, including constructing a 100 module prototype to demonstrate how SuperBot might be used in space exploration.


(SuperBot youtube video ([skip to 1 minute mark])

Dr. Shen points out the limits of the current set of robotic devices used for space exploration:

One of the most challenging issues for human-centered long-range space exploration is performing complex tasks in environments that are not human-friendly.... the traditional approach of building separate robots for separate tasks (such as the Canada Arm and surface rovers) may no longer be adequate for affordable space exploration as the required robotic tasks become diverse and the need to pack many functionalities into a single launch volume increases.

Dr. Shen proposes the SuperBot modules as a way to meet this goal. Each module is a "robot" in its own right, with microcontrollers, sensors, communications, power supply, three degrees of freedom and six connecting faces to dynamically connect with other modules. At launch, or when landing, SuperBot can pack itself into a minimum amount of space.


(SuperBot modular robot)

Upon arrival, SuperBot can unpack itself and take any of a wide variety of forms. For example, it might form several exploration rovers, one SuperBot capable of rolling down hill, another twisting "sidewinder-style" over level sand while another forms a SuperBot climbing robot to take on more challenging terrain.


(SuperBot forms 'sidewinder' snakebot)

SuperBot will help NASA to reduce costs and simplify operations by reusing robotic components from mission to mission. If the robotic modules are truly interchangeable and interoperable, the need for redundant parts on a given mission can be reduced, thus lowering payload mass and cost. Mission reliabilty and safety would be enhanced, since the modules themselves would know how to perform tasks, and would require less active direction from astronauts or ground crews.

Dr. Shen hopes to have his 100 module SuperBot operational and ready for testing in a desert environment by 2008.

The following articles provide more information about similar robots:

  • Self-Replicating Modular Robots
    Each ten centimeter cube is an autonomous unit with a microprocessor and a set of instructions on how to link themselves with other modules.
  • TETWalker: Shape-Shifting Robot Swarm
    This bot is a prototype member of an autonomous nanotechnology swarm that can alter their shape to flow smoothly over rocky terrain.
Consider the living metal cubes from The Metal Monster, by Abraham Merritt, Published by Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1920.

Update 08-Feb-2017

Golden Age legend Jack Williamson wrote a great story titled The Infinite Enemy, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1938, in which an alternate universe is found to contain a being comprised of metallic cubes.

End update.

Read more at the SuperBot press release and in this short SuperBot project abstract (pdf).

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 2/25/2007)

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