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Modular robots were inspired by molecules

11 July, 2009

Festo is developing a programmable robotic system formed from a series of cube-shaped modules which can be attached to each other in any direction, in a similar way to chemical molecules. The Molecube system (shown below) is a development of an idea first devised by researchers at Cornell University in the US.

The two halves of each cube rotate about an axis defined by two diagonally opposite corners. Linking several cubes together allows an almost unlimited number of different shapes and movements. The end modules can incorporate grippers, cameras or drive shafts.

When a new module is added, this is communicated to all of the other cubes to ensure that the energy supply and the transmission of signals from one cube to another are maintained.

The 66mm-long cubes, each weighing around 200g and capable of producing 4.85Nm of torque, can rotate continuously at up to 17 times per minute. They communicate internally via wired connections at up to 1Mb/s, and externally via Bluetooth and USB. Wireless data transmission allows assemblies of the cubes to be replicated in models running on PCs.

The Molecubes can be programmed in four different ways: high-level programming using direct drive commands; the C++ language; using mechanical “learning”; or using graphical emulation to test and operate an assembly virtually.

In the next phase of development, Festo wants to integrate the mechanical and electronic elements more closely, with the aim of producing even smaller cubes.

A video of the Molecubes in action can be seen on Festo’s Web site.

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