Article

Modular, Multifunctional and Reconfigurable SuperBot for Space Applications

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Abstract

The traditional approach of building special robots for each of a large variety of tasks in space may become increasingly impractical because it requires many specialized robots that are expensive and difficult to deploy. This paper describes a new SuperBot robotic system that uses modularity and self-reconfiguration as an effective means to achieve low cost, multifunction, and adaptive capabilities. SuperBot consists of Lego-like but autonomous robotic modules that can reconfigure into different systems for different tasks. Examples of configurable systems include rolling tracks or wheels (for efficient travel), spiders or centipedes (for climbing), snakes (for burrowing in ground), long arms (for inspection and repair in space), and devices that can fly in micro-gravity environment. Each module is a complete robotic system and has a power supply, micro-controllers, sensors, communication, three degrees of freedom, and six connecting faces (front, back, left, right, up and down) to dynamically connect to other modules. This design allows flexible bending, docking, and continuous rotation. A single module can move forward, back, left, right, flip-over, and rotate as a wheel. Modules can communication with each other for totally distributed control and can support arbitrary module reshuffling during their operation. They have both internal and external sensors for monitoring self status and environmental parameters. They can form arbitrary configurations (graphs) and can control these configurations for different functionality such as locomotion, manipulation, and self-repair. Some application scenarios have been developed to utilize the new capability, and they include Multi-Use Lunar Explorer (MULE), a Habitat Maintenance and Operations System (HOMS), a cost-effective robotic method to detect H2O or seismic features, and a set of flying maneuvers and mini-RMS for inspection and maintenance on and near CEV or Space Station.

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... Inspired by other SRRs such as the M-TRAN and CONRO, the SuperBot (Shen et al., 2006b) is a hybrid SRR designed for NASA's space exploration programs and support life on other planets. Similar to the M-TRAN module, a SuperBot module consists of two semi-cylindrical cubes bonded together, with an additional DoF that allows the bond itself to rotate in both directions. ...
Thesis
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Self-Reconfigurable Robots have shown great versatility and promise for building dynamic and self-adapting structures of modular robots. Unfortunately, the structural requirements for building structurally-sound robotic structures of modular robots at the architectural scale, where structural performance and stability of the assembly are crucial for success, have yet to be properly addressed. This thesis addresses these requirements and proposes a structurally-driven control strategy for a self-reconfigurable robotic system based on the structural analysis and performance of not only the final target configuration of a robotic assembly but also of the intermediate transitional configurations achieved during self-reconfiguration. To formulate a structurally feasible target shape, a topology optimization is used to evolve the target shape based specific boundary and loading conditions and to maximize structural stiffness. Thereafter, the control strategy drives the modules’ decision-making process using three fitness criteria for action selection: modules’ convergence towards the given target configuration, stability of the overall assembly, and the structural performance of the assembly. While the proposed control strategy succeeds in filtering out unstable and structurally unsafe configurations, corrective measures fail in completely dealing with a declining structural performance. Nevertheless, this thesis exposes some of the difficulties in using local decision-making to solve global structural issues and extends the state-of-art on structurally-aware self-reconfigurable robots.
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One of the most challenging issues for a self- sustaining robotic system is how to use its limited resources to accomplish a large variety of tasks. The scope of such tasks could include transportation, exploration, construc- tion, inspection, maintenance, in-situ resource utilization, and support for astronauts. This paper proposes a modular and reconfigurable solution for this challenge by allowing a robot to support multiple modes of locomotion and select the appropriate mode for the task at hand. This solution re- lies on robots that are made of reconfigurable modules. Each locomotion mode consists of a set of characteristics for the environment type, speed, turning-ability, energy-efficiency, and recoverability from failures. This paper demonstrates a solution using the SuperBot robot that combines advantages from M-TRAN, CONRO, ATRON, and other chain-based and lattice-based robots. At the present, a single real Super- Bot module can move, turn, sidewind, maneuver, and travel on batteries up to 500 m on carpet in an office environment. In physics-based simulation, SuperBot modules can perform multimodal locomotions such as snake, caterpillar, insect, spider, rolling track, H-walker, etc. It can move at speeds of up to 1.0 m/s on flat terrain using less than 6 W per module, and climb slopes of no less 40 degrees.