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Self-Configuring Lego-Like SuperBots For NASA Crawl, Fly, Climb

SuperBots modules can connect in a variety of ways to permit rolling, climbing, burrowing, flying, and inspection and repair.
Robotics developers at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute say they have made considerable progress with SuperBot modular units that can plug into each other and reconfigure themselves to accomplish different missions.

One of the developers, Wei-Min Shen, director of the Polymorphic Robotics Laboratory at the university, recently demonstrated the progress at the Space Technology and Applications International Forum in Albuquerque. The modules are designed for NASA's space missions.

"SuperBot consists of Lego-like but autonomous robotic modules," he said. "Examples of configurable systems include rolling tracks or wheels."

Wheels and tracks enable travel, while configurations similar to spiders or centipedes allow for climbing. Snake-like modules allow for burrowing into the ground, while long arms allow for inspection and repair. The modules can also fashion themselves into devices that can fly in a microgravity environment, Shen said.

"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," he said. "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 communicate with each other for totally distributed control and can support arbitrary module reshuffling during their operation."

Internal and external sensors enable the modules to monitor themselves and their environment, Shen said.