As much as a robot might excel at a certain mode of transport, as soon as conditions change it can become hopeless. Now engineers at Caltech have designed a new robot that can roll around on four wheels, flip them into rotors to fly, or transform for six other types of motion.
The team calls this versatile machine the Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot (M4), and in its basic stance it just looks like a robotic rectangle on four wheels. With these it can drive around pretty smoothly, or it can turn its wheels sideways on demand and spin up the propellers to lift off like a quadcopter.
Those two modes of travel alone would be pretty useful, but M4 has a few more tricks up its sleeves. In four-wheeled mode it can lower its body to ‘crouch,’ or it can lock the rotation of the wheels and move them in pairs, in a kind of quadrupedal ‘walking’ motion. A configuration with two wheels and two propellers can help it climb steep slopes, or let it stand upright to scout ahead and plan its next moves. From that stance it can either roll on two wheels or tumble end over end.
The idea is that M4 is pretty much ready for anything it comes across. It can drive around on four wheels by default – which is its most energy-efficient mode – before switching into flight mode to cross a ravine, then transforming back into drive mode on the other side. Boulders and slopes and tight passageways should prove no match for its other locomotion modes either.
This range of abilities could help robots like M4 autonomously navigate unfamiliar environments, including searching for survivors in a collapsed building or even exploring other planets.
“Our aim was to push the boundaries of robot locomotion by designing a system that showcases extraordinary mobility capabilities with a wide range of distinct locomotion modes,” said Alireza Ramezani, corresponding author of the study. “The M4 project successfully achieved these objectives.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications. M4 can be seen in action in the video below.
M4 Drives and Flies Around Caltech’s Campus