In the Transformers movies, the robots that morph into different shapes are autonomous, sentient beings -- which, of course, is part of their scary allure. The toys on which the movies are based are static. Their parts can be rearranged to turn them into animals, vehicles, or other machines, but that's as far as the transformation goes.
Now the hobbyist firm Brave Robotics has created a robot that morphs from a sleek, sporty car into a humanoid that looks like a tough customer. (Watch a video of the transformation below.)
This is version 7.2 of what's been an ongoing project since 2002, according to the timeline on the company's website. The production version of this remote-controlled robot comes with a WiFi video camera, which streams its data to a tablet PC for viewing. The robot also can shoot darts from its arms. The kit includes a controller, batteries, a charger, and motion-editing software. The robot is delivered preprogrammed.
This spring, EnGadget reported on a similar robot from JS Robotics that uses 22 servo motors.
The latest Brave Robotics offering, which debuted at Maker Faire Tokyo 2012, changes its shape in a few seconds. Earlier versions of the 1/12 scale robot transformed slowly and clunkily. By version 4, when the robot was in car mode, it could drive on its tires and turn by steering, according to the timeline. In its humanoid form, it could walk and looked humanoid.
The designers revamped it twice after that, solving different design problems each time. By version 6, they had come up with a new transforming system, and they were using a CNC milling machine to make parts. In the next few versions, they simplified the system, and it began to resemble its more elegant current version. With version 7.1, the designers began using a 3D printer, which they designed and built themselves, to make the robot's parts.
Designs of other robots have begun with hobbyist or toy versions. We wrote in August about the Phoenix autonomous flapping robotic birds built by the Robot Locomotion Group of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Those robots started as hobbyist radio-controlled ornithopters. The group's Agile Flight Project team designed them as a platform for investigating motor control of maneuverable flapping-wing flight in an outdoor setting.
The Brave Robotics robot, of course, isn't autonomous -- yet. According to the timeline, by 2030, the company wants to build a 1/1 scale transforming robot that anyone can ride; that robot will be able to think using a "super AI system." I suspect that's not a joke.
On second thought, since there are already branded toys--the static ones referred to at the beginning of the article--and since this thing costs several thousand dollars, I doubt if it's likely that this design will be co-branded with the movie. But it's certainly available for purchase by Neiman's-shopping parents.
Those are the same variables that concerned me with scaling up this technology. And it looks like most of the self-assembly/self-reconfiguring technology I'm investigating is done by researchers more interested in scaling down--way down, to nanoscale transformers.
Ann, probably the one other thing that we will need to scale up is our "suspension of disbelief". The biggest issue that I can see is not in the scaling of the materials, but in the fact that both weight and inertia also scale up, by a higher factor, I think, at least for the inertia. The full-scale transformers will need to move a bit slower, I guess.
William, well said. I have a hard time imaging how they will successfully scale up the hardware to full-size operation by 2030. Unless they take advantage of some of the R&D work being done in self-assembling and self-reconfiguring robots primarily via software. I'll be covering that in an upcoming feature article. Perhaps that R&D work will have resulted in more macroscale hardware implementations by 2030, which will aid Brave Robotics' efforts.
It is quite amazing, that transformation. A slow motion presentation would have been even better, but at the speed that it changes it is a big accomplishment indeed. I did see what looks like a challenge with the vehicle steering, but that may just be the way that it was run for the video, and a tabletop is not the best place to show off a car.
But the details of how a full scale unit would drive will be very interesting indeed, and I look forward to that. Of course the full scale one will have a whole lot more obstacles to overcome before it is as "cool" as this model.
I noticed that the timeline is suggesting that the full scale transforming vehicle will include occupants. I would have to assume that the transformation mode keeps the occupants in some kind of neutral position. However, even the CGI guys realized the impractibility of transforming with people inside their digital creations and decided to eject them out. Seems to me the transformation technology is a challenging engineering task, but now add human safety! Good luck!!!
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