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14Dec/105

The Whiskerwheel — Flexible Locomotion

I have a fairly simple idea for a new kind of wheel that I will describe to you now. It's not really possible to build a very good one with today's technology, but it seems as if it could be possible with more advanced fullerene-based robotics.

I got the idea for this wheel while reading about Usain Bolt and the possible limits of human speed. One of the obvious factors that determines speed is the total amount of force applied to the ground per time interval. Humans and other animals with legs can only contact the ground as many times as they have legs per running cycle, limiting the amount of force they can apply.

The classic workaround to this limitation is the wheel, which can apply constant force to the ground as long as its power source holds out. Of course, the wheel has its weaknesses. A wheel can't operate efficiently over uneven ground, and can't scale certain obstacles. The solution is to create a "wheel" that consists of a bundle of tentacles, or "whiskers" which can lock together, become rigid, and behave like a solid wheel while moving over flat ground, but can unlock and independently articulate when moving over rougher terrain.

This concept takes the strengths of the wheel and bipedal/quadrupedal/tentacle locomotion and merges them into a single system. The idea wouldn't work too well with present-day robotics because 1) the fine coordination and control required between the whiskers to merge into a wheel or detach from one another and articulate smoothly over uneven terrain would be a huge challenge by current standards, 2) miniaturization and nanotechnology has not yet advanced to the point where a thin, strong tendril or whisker can quickly be changed from flexible to rigid in a fraction of a second (magnets are not good enough, it needs to be mechanical), 3) the idea works best when the power-to-weight ratio of engines can be improved beyond today's current standards, and when engines can be made small enough to be installed into the whiskers themselves.

If all these requirements were met, however, you'd have quite a system. Locomotion based on tentacles alone would be very effective for scrambling over rough terrain, locomotion based on wheels alone would be good for the highway, but what if I need both? The whiskerwheel can adjust to be more wheel-like or more tentacle-like based on the demands of the moment. Nano-cilia and lubricants could be used to keep the interfaces between the whiskers clean so they slide past each other fluidly when necessary. The whisker format would also allow the wheel to increase the surface area of its contact with the ground beyond a typical wheel fitting in the same space, improving traction and increasing the total amount of force applied to the ground, increasing speed.

You could even build a robotic system that simply is a whiskerwheel, rather than using a whiskerwheel with a conventional axle-based mounting. A system like that would be a sort of robotic shoggoth.

Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Sounds like YT’s skateboard from Snow Crash.

  2. Pretty similar Matt, although the flexibility is new. From the book:

    “Smartwheels use sonar, laser range finding and millimeter wave radar to identify mufflers and other debris. Each one consists of a hub with many tiny spokes. Each spoke telescopes into five sections. On the end is a squat foot, rubber tread on the bottom, swiveling on a ball joint. As the wheel rolls, the feet plant themselves one at a time, almost glomming into one continuous tire. If you surf over a bump, the spokes contract to roll over it. If you surf over a pothole, the rubber prongs probe its asphalt depths. Either way, the shock is thereby absorbed, no thuds, smacks, vibrations, or clunks will make their way into the plank or the Converse hightops with which you tread it. The ad was right – you cannot be a professional road surfer without smartwheels.”

    “The smartwheels of her skateboard, many, many spokes extending and retracting to fit the shape of the ground, take her across the lawn like a pat of butter skidding across hot Teflon. “

  3. There is a reason why you thought of shoggoth, a being of insanity and horror. Which is that a human who would hack his own legs off for this sort of locomotion would probably resemble one. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Emotional engineering is, after all, as important as bionical for the achievement of a posthuman state.

  4. This is certainly an interesting idea. It would seem though that tentacles would be a very slow, if efficient, way of moving across rough terrain on land. Anyone who has seen an octopus crawl along the bottom of the ocean knows that it’s not particularly speedy (hence the jet propulsion.) I realize that due to the inherent differences in traveling in water and air and the fact that an octopus has no skeleton that this is not a perfect comparison but you see my point. I suppose this problem could be solved by improving the power/weight ratio as you mentioned but now we’re into the realm of pure speculation.

    P.S. I now officially want a robot shoggoth.

  5. You are talking about a Self-reconfiguring modular robot they can move like this and in many other ways!

    And on top of that you get many other amazing things like incredible flexibility, it can be small or large, self healing low cost etc.

    I include some links to some videos that show different gaits that have been implemented already and many more is on the way!

    If anybody is interested in more info, I include some links to the Wikipedia for the area.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-reconfiguring_modular_robot

    Adaptive Modular Robot Locomotion
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ae2GdtetpCE

    Snake Robot 3
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6W-sEpJEqY

    KulKo: Snake robot obstacle aided locomotion
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E9HJtI7ILo

    Modular Snake Robots
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T62E-_pQt3c

    Self-Transforming Mobile Robot
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tD3dsDzbeg&hd=1

    Rolling Track Gait (Heal Thyself)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjcPvU7mR_M

    CkBot end over end gait
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t93DVAdA9WI
    CkBot Rocking U Gait
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4USz1OZJjE

    And If I may plug my own stuff focusing on Self-reconfiguring modular robotics,
    My blog
    http://www.flexibilityenvelope.com
    My podcast
    http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/series/flexible.html

    Per


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