SlothBot Provides Slow, Steady Environmental Monitoring
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on June 05, 2019 |

While having a robot that can move at 12,100mm/s can boost efficiency in manufacturing, some industries that might benefit from automation require sloth-like slowness. Inspired by the seemingly always sleepy treetop dwellers, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed a SlothBot for more leisurely applications.

“In robotics, it seems we are always pushing for faster, more agile and more extreme robots,” said Magnus Egerstedt, the Steve W. Chaddick School Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and principal investigator for SlothBot. “But there are many applications where there is no need to be fast. You just have to be out there persistently over long periods of time, observing what’s going on. If you are doing things like environmental monitoring, you want to be out in the forest for months. That changes the way you think about control systems at a high level.”

Graduate Research Assistant Gennaro Notomista shows the components of SlothBot on a cable in a Georgia Tech lab. The robot is designed to be slow and energy efficient for applications such as environmental monitoring. (Image courtesy of Allison Carter/Georgia Tech.)
Graduate Research Assistant Gennaro Notomista shows the components of SlothBot on a cable in a Georgia Tech lab. The robot is designed to be slow and energy efficient for applications such as environmental monitoring. (Image courtesy of Allison Carter/Georgia Tech.)

Although the use of flying robots and drones has been beneficial for collecting data for things such as the environment and agriculture, those robots require a lot of energy. And while ground robots may use less energy, they are not ideal for getting around certain environments.

“The thing that costs energy more than anything else is movement,” Egerstedt said. “Moving is much more expensive than sensing or thinking. For environmental robots, you should only move when you absolutely have to. We had to think about what that would be like.”

While in Costa Rica, Egerstedt, who has developed algorithms to drive swarms of small wheeled or flying robots, found his attention captured by the energy-efficient sloth . Along with Professor Ron Arkin in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, the two began developing “a theory of slowness.” With the help of Graduate Research Assistant Gennaro Notomista and his colleague Yousef Emam, they turned that theory into SlothBot.

The SlothBot is powered by two photovoltaic panels: 3D-printed gears and switches that allow the robot to switch from one cable to another. (Image courtesy of Allison Carter/Georgia Tech.)
The SlothBot is powered by two photovoltaic panels: 3D-printed gears and switches that allow the robot to switch from one cable to another. (Image courtesy of Allison Carter/Georgia Tech.)

SlothBot consists of two bodies connected by an actuated hinge, 3D-printed gears and wiring mechanisms. Each body has a driving motor connected to a rim that uses wheels for movement along a cable. Two photovoltaic panels provide the energy SlothBot needs to conduct long-term monitoring of weather, chemicals and other ecological factors. When it needs more energy, the robot will move to a sunny spot to recharge.

The researchers have tested SlothBot on a network of cables on the Georgia Tech campus. After creating a new 3D-printed shell to protect its inner workings—including cameras, a computer and gears—the team plans to perform a long-term study in Atlanta Botanical Garden’s tree canopy. Additional research plans include testing on a cacao plantation in Costa Rica among real sloths.

“The cables used to move cacao have become a sloth superhighway because the animals find them useful to move around,” Egerstedt said. “If all goes well, we will deploy SlothBots along the cables to monitor the sloths.”

Interested in more nature-inspired robotics? Check out Introducing the Backflipping Mini Cheetah Robot and Robots with a Group Mind Swarm with a Smile.


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