From time to time on this blog, we like to look in on the world of robotics to see what's happening there. Most of the work in that field does not, of course, directly involve nanotechnology (unless you're talking about still-theoretical medical nanobots). But robotics is an area that is moving forward rapidly (no pun intended!), and it's easy to see that molecular manufacturing will greatly accelerate that progress.
The latest gizmo to grab our attention is Ballbot, pictured above.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed a new type of mobile robot that balances on a ball instead of legs or wheels. "Ballbot" is a self-contained, battery-operated, omnidirectional robot that balances dynamically on a single urethane-coated metal sphere. It weighs 95 pounds and is the approximate height and width of a person. Because of its long, thin shape and ability to maneuver in tight spaces, it has the potential to function better than current robots can in environments with people.
Ballbot's creator, Robotics Research Professor Ralph Hollis, says the robot represents a new paradigm in mobile robotics...
"We wanted to create a robot that can maneuver easily and is tall enough to look you in the eye," Hollis said. "Ballbot is tall and skinny, with a much higher center of gravity than traditional wheeled robots. Because it is omnidirectional, it can move easily in any direction without having to turn first."
This robot is still in a relatively rudimentary stage of development, but it's an impressive accomplishment. Now, imagine integrating a high-quality text to speech program along with a wireless Internet connection tied to, say, Wikipedia, or some other general information source. Add a display screen for Google Maps (and perhaps even a simple printer), and this robot could be a very valuable public information dispenser.
That's all conceivable with today's technology, and it's just one of many possibilities.
Future plans for Ballbot include adding a head and a pair of arms. Swinging the arms, said Hollis, would help to rotate and balance the body.
"We want to make Ballbot much faster, more dynamic and graceful," he said. "But there are many hurdles to overcome, like responding to unplanned contact with its surroundings, planning motion in cluttered spaces and safety issues."