Meet Morphobot: Reimagining search and rescue with repurposable limbs

A new robot can traverse diverse terrains on land and in the air by cleverly transforming its appendages between wheels, propellers, legs, and hands.
Sade Agard
,Morphobot, or M4, in 'wheel mode.'
Morphobot, or M4, in 'wheel mode.'

Eric Sihite et al. 

When the word 'Morphobot' crosses your mind, it's no surprise if your thoughts immediately drift towards the captivating world of Transformers. After all, this iconic universe features a remarkable group of robotic beings capable of morphing into different forms, seamlessly transitioning between vehicles, objects, or even living creatures.

However, a real-life robot bearing the nickname 'Morphobot' (M4) has emerged in a new development published in the journal Nature Communications. According to its researchers, the robot can traverse diverse terrains on land and in the air by cleverly transforming its appendages between wheels, propellers, legs, and hands.

Drawing inspiration from animals like birds, meerkats, and seals, this remarkable robot exhibits an impressive array of movements. It can effortlessly fly, roll, crawl, crouch, balance, and even tumble, enabling it to adapt and navigate diverse environments. 

The findings could enhance the design of robots used in critical tasks like search and rescue operations following natural disasters, space exploration missions, and automated package delivery systems.

What is M4, the animal-inspired 'Morphobot'?

Certain animals demonstrate remarkable adaptability by repurposing their limbs to traverse diverse terrains. Sea lions employ flippers for walking on land, meerkats stand on their hind limbs for better observation, and chukar birds use their wings to support climbing steep slopes.

Inspired by this natural phenomenon, Alireza Ramezani and colleagues designed M4, a robot with four legs each comprising two joints and ducted fans fixed at the leg ends. 

Weighing in at 6 kilograms and measuring 70 centimeters in length, with a height and width of 35 centimeters, the robot showcases its versatility through its unique fan design. These fans can seamlessly transition between serving as legs, propeller thrusters, or wheels.

According to a press release, the M4 robot can walk over rough terrain, conquer steep slopes and tumble over large obstacles. It also demonstrated its ability to ascend to higher levels by taking flight and maneuvering through low-ceiling pathways by crawling.

Such findings truly illuminate the advantages of designing robots with multipurpose appendages. By endowing them with versatile capabilities, machines can fearlessly venture into diverse and demanding terrains, effortlessly conquering obstacles that once seemed insurmountable. 

We only have to go back to a few days ago when a gripping story unfolded in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. A deep-sea ROV (remotely operated vehicle) ventured into the unknown to unravel the mystery of a missing submarine and the fate of the five souls aboard. It made a critical discovery: debris.

Ultimately, it's developments like these that shatter the limits of what robots can achieve in complex environments, ushering in a new era of exploration and problem-solving. 

The complete study was published in Nature Communications on June 27 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Robot designs can take many inspirations from nature, where there are many examples of highly resilient and fault-tolerant locomotion strategies to navigate complex terrains by recruiting multifunctional appendages. For example, birds such as Chukars and Hoatzins can repurpose wings for quadrupedal walking and wing-assisted incline running. These animals showcase impressive dexterity in employing the same appendages in different ways and generating multiple modes of locomotion, resulting in highly plastic locomotion traits which enable them to interact and navigate various environments and expand their habitat range. The robotic biomimicry of animals' appendage repurposing- ing can yield mobile robots with unparalleled capabilities. Taking inspiration from animals, we have designed a robot capable of negotiating unstructured, multi-substrate environments, including land and air, by employing its components in different ways as wheels, thrusters, and legs. This robot is called the Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot, or M4 in short. M4 can employ its multifunctional components composed of several actuator types to (1) fly, (2) roll, (3) crawl, (4) crouch, (5) balance, (6) tumble, (7) scout, and (8) loco- manipulate. M4 can traverse steep slopes of up to 45 deg. and rough terrains with large obstacles when in balancing mode. M4 possesses onboard computers and sensors and can autonomously employ its modes to negotiate an unstructured environment. We present the design of M4 and several experiments showcasing its multi-modal capabilities.

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