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Morphobot Has Arrived
Hugh Bollinger

Morphobot Has Arrived

Morphobot prototype (credit: CalTech)

An elegant, bio-inspired, contraption has been invented by engineers at CalTech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Known as the Multi-modal mobility robot or Morphobot M4 for short, the new device can roll on its wheels, turn them into rotors and fly like a drone, stand on two wheels to peer over objects like an African meerkat, use its wheels to stand and 'walk' like feet, and apply its rotors to access high slopes. The robot is a perfect example of applying biomimicry, adapting natural evolutionary designs, for creating solutions to practical problems.

A robot with such a wide range of capabilities could find applications ranging from exploration of planetary landscapes to transporting injured people to a clinic. M4 was developed at the Center for Autonomous Systems and Technology (CAST) at CalTech and is being tested by engineers at JPL. Imagine Morphobot exploring a new environment initially by rolling on four wheels. If it reached an obstacle like a boulder, it could stand on two wheels to peer over it for a better view of what lay beyond. If it encountered a ravine that it could not traverse, it could rotate its wheels to become rotors, fly across the ravine, and resume rolling when it reached the other side. According to its inventors:

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. The M4 successfully achieved these objectives.

The CalTech developers produced a video of their new robot encountering various landscpe features on the Pasadena campus and how their prototype can convert its wheels into rotors for flying and walking upright at a JPL garage.

                                  Wheel joint assemblies allow Morphobot to execute flying and walking motions (credit: CalTech/JPL)

Unlike the fictional movie characters, this true-life 'transformer' applies multiple AI sensors to assess and adapt to its situation and determine the most effective manner to maneuver. Imagine what Morphobot will discover when it goes into real action on Mars, Jupiter's frozen moon Europa, or Saturn's haze-shrouded moon Titan. The frontiers of applying biomimicry are unfolding in ways few would have believed before now. WHB

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