roombot robotic furniture
May 26, 2014

Researchers Develop Lego-Like Robots That Can Transform Into Furniture

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

If you’ve ever wished that you could just say the word and have your furniture automatically move around and change shape, researchers from the Swiss Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) are developing small Lego-brick like robots that could make your dreams come true.

Known as Roombots, these 22 centimeter long robotic modules are said to resemble a pair of large dice that are attached to one-another, and are capable of altering their shape in order to make reconfigurable furniture, the inventors explain in a paper appearing in the online edition of the journal Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

“Eventually, all you'll need to do is program the layout of a bedroom or a conference room, then let the modules do the work,” EPFL associate professor and BioRob head Auke Ijspeert explained in a statement. Each of the Roombots comes equipped with a battery and three motors, allowing them to pivot with three degrees of freedom.

Furthermore, Mariella Moon of Engadget reports that each of the block-like machines has retractable claws, allowing them to scale walls or fasten themselves to floors. The creators believe that the robots could help people with disabilities or the elderly, since they could simply verbally instruct the machines to move closer, go further away or change locations.

“We designed the Roombots elements in such a way that they blend into the background of a room and make the users' lives easier, while maintaining a certain aesthetic quality. We're open to any possibility,” said Ijspeert.

Potential uses for the robots include flower pots that can relocate themselves from one window to another, or having several units combine to create modular, adaptable lighting or sound system components. However, before the Roombots have a hope of being released, there are still some technical issues to sort out.

“The team still needs to figure out how users can control the robots – while voice or gesture command would be ideal, the team's looking at using software made for tablets at the moment,” explained Moon. “They still also need to smooth out the robots' movements, tweak their algorithm and make sure they work together better first before your can fill your homes with reconfigurable furniture.”

In an article published by Discovery News, writer Tanya Lewis said that the BioRob developers estimate it will take about 20 years for the Roombots to go from prototype to commercial availability. Compounding the other technical issues is the fact that each unit’s batteries have a lifespan of just one hour, although the inventors do not expect this to be a long-term problem.

“Future Roombots might be able to share power between modules, recharging while they're connected to a grid on the ground or wall,” Lewis said. “The group is also planning a newer generation of Roombots for assisted living environments, which could actually interact with people. But the question remains, would people – especially the elderly – want to live in a house where their furniture moved around and rearranged itself?”

“Many people might think it's kind of a crazy idea,” said study co-author and EPFL engineer Massimo Vespignani. However, he believes that once people get to see the Roombots in action, they will begin to see the appeal of it. “Personally, I would like to have something like this,” he added.