Modular multifunctional robots could be assembled in minutes

Soldiers could one day carry multifunctional robots that can be assembled in minutes thanks to a new modular system invented in the UK.

The EXTRM robot kit, developed by Berkshire-based Robosynthesis, employs a novel connection system that allows users to build a huge range of different sized and shaped robots and customise them with different sensors and tools.

Military personnel could use the system to build robots in the field for exploration, detecting hazardous materials or locating and disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs), according to inventor and Robosynthesis chief executive officer Philip Norman.

‘You can put payload bays on so you can pick up things and take samples,’ he told The Engineer. ‘You can fit lights on it, you could put a telescopic mast on it, you can put comms on it, you can use it as a transceiver station — it’s endless.’

The EXTRM robot components are made primarily from carbon-fibre composites and so are lightweight and produce a relatively small magnetic signature, making them harder to detect.

The system’s software allows all components in a robot to talk to each other, meaning they can be connected without complex configuration.

Norman admitted that robots built using EXTRM might not be as rugged as some other systems and wouldn’t be as suitable for some very specialised tasks such as pipe inspection.

‘But if you break it you can mend it,’ he said. ‘If you’re out there with three robots and one gets shot at, you can steal bits off another.’

The system was developed following £150,000 from the Ministry of Defence’s Centre for Defence Enterprise and is undergoing military assessment and certification in the UK. Robosynthesis is working with a prime contractor and a commercial model is expected to be ready by the summer.

The modular nature of the system should make it cheaper to manufacture because common parts can be produced for different kits and to maintain because individual broken components can be easily replaced.

Robosynthesis has also developed a novel paddle-based scrambling system that enables the robot to drag itself over obstacles in a similar way to how arthropods such as lobsters move.

It features a ‘slip-and-grip’ control system, whereby the robot allows itself to slip on uneven ground and then start moving again, rather than expend power by trying to cling on.

EXTRM’s ease of use was trialled by testing the system in schools. ‘We’ve talked to toy companies but they’re very frightened of costs,’ said Norman.