TWIE 158: Self-Assembling Cube Robots

This Week in Engineering - Galloping robot; self-assembling cube robots; jellyfish-killing robots; neutron microscope; inflatable concert hall; and merry-go-round power.

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Galloping robot
Cambridge-based Boston Dynamics, home of robots like the Big Dog, PETMAN and Cheetah, has now created the WildCat, an untethered gasoline-powered quadruped robot that can gallop like a horse.  While not as fast as the tethered Cheetah on a treadmill, the WildCat is still fast enough to run down most humans, and recovers gracefully from a fall.  The robot was created as part of DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation -- or M3 -- program, to create robots that can move rapidly in natural environments.  The research could help produce military robots that help soldiers by carrying heavy loads on difficult terrain.

Self-assembling cube robots
MIT researcher John Romanishin has created M-Blocks, modular cube robots that move and assemble without exterior moving parts.  Each cube has magnetic sides and corners around a hollow center with a flywheel capable of spinning at up to 20,000 RPM.  Once the flywheel is spinning, it can be braked suddenly, which transfers its angular momentum to the cube, sending the M-Block rolling -- or even flying -- in any direction.  Permanent magnets in each face allow cubes to attach.  Of course, the real goal is to deploy this technology where it is most needed: at the craps table.

Jellyfish-killing robots
In some aquatic environments, jellyfish overpopulation due to overfishing of their natural predators can be a serious problem -- in fact, a Swedish nuclear reactor was recently shut down due to jellyfish-clogged intake pipes.  Now, a team led by Hyeon Myeong from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has created the Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm, or JEROS.  The robots patrol a pre-programmed area and use cameras to find the blooms, and can suck up and grind nearly 2000 pounds of jellyfish per hour.  Oh, and robots, if the jellyfish sting you, get another robot to pee on you.  It’s gross, but hey, it also doesn’t work.

Neutron microscope
Researchers from MIT, with help from NASA, have developed the concept behind a microscope that uses neutrons instead of light or electrons to create high-resolution images.  

Neutron beams, which interact only minimally with matter, are difficult to focus, but the team applied a technique, originally proposed for X-rays, in which non reflective surfaces become reflective at a shallow enough angle, much like a desert mirage.  The device uses several nested reflective cylinders for increased surface area, and could improve existing neutron imaging systems by up to a factor of 50.  Neutron microscopes would have the advantage over conventional or electron microscopes of being capable of probing inside metal objects.

Inflatable concert hall
British sculptor Anish Kapoor and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki have teamed up to create the Ark Nova, the world’s first inflatable concert hall.  Initially created for Switzerland’s annual Lucerne Festival, the temporary building, which can house an audience of up to about 500 people, is made from an easily-inflated thin purple membrane.  The building is now stationed in Japan’s Matsushima prefecture, and will soon tour areas devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  Nice, but don’t bring that balloon to America to host a Miley Cyrus concert.  Anything that looks that much like a belly button might get pierced.

Merry-go-round power
Children in rural Ghana must often study in buildings that are dark and generally disconnected from the country’s infrastructure.  Now, Empower Engineering, a startup from former ExxonMobil VP Ben Markham, has built a merry-go-round that converts some of the energy from playing children into electricity that can be distributed to classrooms or