The Challenge Of Robot Locomotion
Written by Lucy Black   
Sunday, 16 January 2022

Legs or wheels - four or two? These are fundamental design choices if you are building a robot. For drones there are other issues starting with the problem of staying airborne. There is however scope for clever design to promote versatility. Anyone interested in re-inventing the wheel?

Boston Dynamics was with Hyundai, which now owns an 80% stake in it, at CES where they put Spot through its paces and followed up with some less familiar robots: 

Spot is by now a pretty familiar robot but we've not previously encountered Mobed, a small platform with four wheels and a mind of its own. At first it doesn't seem that impressive but when you scale it up you have a self-driving pod.

These platform-based designs rely on four wheels which limits the range of terrain they can cope with. Having just two wheels can be more versatile as demonstrated by Ascento Pro: 


Ascento Pro's advantage is speed, up to 12km per hour, but what can it be used for? Transport yes, but also surveillance and inspection, where the main problem limiting its usefulness is its bulk.


Researchers at HiPeRLab at UC Berkeley have come up with a novel quadcopter capable of changing its shape mid-flight thanks to freely-rotating hinges that allow the vehicle arms to fold downwards by either reducing or reversing thrust forces. As shown in this video, changing configuration enables the vehicle to traverse small passages, perch on hanging wires, and even perform grasping tasks: 


Finally let's take a look at some bizarre methods of locomotion:

These come from Carnegie Mellon where each semester the new intake of students to the Robotomechanics Lab are challenged to make the silliest walk they can on any robot in the lab:

Silly, yes but also thought-provoking and some might even merit further investigation. A robot that moved by slithering might just work. The polnt is that it is still far to easy to think of robot mechanism as mechanisms without any of the smarts that computer control can bring. To an engineer two wheels are fairly useless without a human rider, but to a computer engineer they can be independent and more versatile than the basic mechanism suggests. Without computer control two wheels are inherently unstable, with computer control they out perform stable three and four wheel configurations.  How many more "active" devices are there to be discovered?

More Information


Design and Control of a Midair-Reconfigurable Quadcopter using Unactuated Hinges

by Nathan Bucki, Jerry Tang and Mark W. Mueller.

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 16 January 2022 )