Challenges in the Locomotion of Self-Reconfigurable Modular Robots

Self-Reconfigurable Modular Robots (SRMRs) are assemblies of autonomous robotic units, referred to as modules, joined together using active connection mechanisms. By changing the connectivity of these modules, SRMRs are able to deliberately change their own shape in order to adapt to new environmental circumstances. One of the main motivations for the development of SRMRs is that conventional robots are limited in their capabilities by their morphology. The promise of the field of self-reconfigurable modular robotics is to design robots that are robust, self-healing, versatile, multi-purpose, and inexpensive. Despite significant efforts by numerous research groups worldwide, the potential advantages of SRMRs have yet to be realized. A high number of degrees of freedom and connectors make SRMRs more versatile, but also more complex both in terms of mechanical design and control algorithms. Scalability issues affect these robots in terms of hardware, low-level control, and high-level planning. In this thesis we identify and target three major challenges: (i) Hardware design; (ii) Planning and control; and, (iii) Application challenges. To tackle the hardware challenges we redesigned and manufactured the Self-Reconfigurable Modular Robot Roombots to meet desired requirements and characteristics. We explored in detail and improved two major mechanical components of an SRMR: the actuation and the connection mechanisms. We also analyzed the use of compliant extensions to increase locomotion performance in terms of locomotion speed and power consumption. We contributed to the control challenge by developing new methods that allow an arbitrary SRMR structure to learn to locomote in an efficient way. We defined a novel bio-inspired locomotion-learning framework that allows the quick and reliable optimization of new gaits after a morphological change due to self-reconfiguration or human construction. In order to find new suitable application scenarios for SRMRs we envision the use of Roombots modules to create Self-Reconfigurable Robotic Furniture. As a first step towards this vision, we explored the use and control of Plug-n-Play Robotic Elements that can augment existing pieces of furniture and create new functionalities in a household to improve quality of life.

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