We’ve seen robots employ some clever methods to overcome obstacles, including some that sprawl, and others that jump, but Colorado State University’s Adaptive Walking Robot is the first to morph its spider-like joints. Researchers from the Adaptive Robotics Lab have taken inspiration from nature to design the robot’s appendages by utilizing shape-shifting joints.
In nature, animals and insects can use the same body parts for different functions, such as using their legs to walk, jump, and swim. Robots, on the other hand, have a fixed mechanical design, meaning those parts, or appendages can only perform a single task, unable to deform for any other purpose.
To get around that issue, the researchers devised what they term as SMJs, or Shape Morphing Joints, which can modify their functionality by softening or solidifying (reconfiguring) those SMJs without altering its mechanical design. This enables the robot to achieve different foot trajectories, allowing it to change their shape to better suit their environments or overcome obstacles.
The secret to the robots SMJs lies in the material they are made from, in this case, PLA filament, which softens using a wire wrap that is heated when a voltage is applied. A silicone sheath holds the PLA in place as the heat melts the filament, thus allowing the appendage to deform. When current is no longer used, the material hardens and becomes rigid, and holds its new configuration. When a voltage is reapplied, the joint returns to its original shape, letting the robot continue to its destination.
The researchers hope to continue the development of their morphing technology to reconfigure other mechanisms, which would give robots the ability to adapt their shape, size, and functionalities to better fulfill tasks in different environments.