What are Modular Robots?
Have you ever dropped something down behind the couch, and you just can’t reach it? Or what about when you wanted to see what was on that top shelf, but it was just a little bit too high? As humans, sometimes there are spaces that are just beyond our reach.
Modular robots are designed to go where humans cannot. Like a Transformer, they are composed of many small parts that can adapt to any situation by changing to the shape needed in that situation. The modular robot can change from one shape to another by changing the position and connection of each little component, or module.
These robots can go places humans, and wheeled robots, cannot go, such as high up on rock faces or in trees, inside small pipes, etc. Often, module robots are camera-equipped and remote controlled to allow human sight into small areas.
Maxime Debrach created his first robot when he was five years old. “And it was quite bad, but I loved it!” he said. Growing up, he recorded YouTube videos about small creations he made in the attic of his parents’ house. Now, at only 20 years old, Maxime has founded a remote sensing/GIS/drone-mapping company with activity based in Africa. He is currently in Malawi mapping clinics and hospitals with drones to help the government improve these establishments.
Maxime pursued a career that matched his childhood passion. For completion of his studies in electrical engineering and industrial computing at Bordeaux University, Maxime needed to find an internship – and he found FabLab. “I was interested in learning about things in new domains like digital fabrication and rapid prototyping,” he said.
FabLab, a Friend of Wevolver
FabLab is a makerspace in London and a long-time friend of Wevolver. Wevolver staff often work out of the lab, and they share a collaboration-driven mission, which results in a like-mindedness in their multidisciplinary approach.
As a FabLab intern, Maxime started building a Wevolver project as part of his learning experience. Tony Fish, Maxime’s mentor, is a leader on the board at both FabLab and Wevolver. So when he took on Maxime Debrach for the internship, he knew exactly which project to give him.
Dtto, the Modular Robot
The Dtto robot by Wevolver is a modular transformable robot designed to be versatile, flexible, and self-reconfigurable. “The small size, versatility, and limitless shapes it can adopt, make Dtto the perfect robot for all kinds of search and rescue operations,” Maxime says.
Dtto is fully automated, which means that the operator does not have to do anything for the robot to move on its own. This allows movements to have greater complexity and adaptivity than a human-operated modular robot would have. The automated modular robot can go from spider to wheel to step shape – and it can even self-heal by reconfiguring around a damaged module. The only drawback to the automated robot, Maxime says, is “if you want to make it change its shape or go somewhere else, you have to change the coding of the robot,” he says.
“The most rewarding part, for me, was when I powered up the first module and I saw it move! It was satisfying to see, after hours and hours of working, the robot was alive!”
The entire skeleton of Maxime’s robot is 3D printed. Maxime soldered the hundreds of small components together before placing them in each 3D-printed module. “It involved a lot of thoroughness,” Maxime reflected.
Maxime encountered a series of challenges in the creation of this robot. It was no small feat to learn the 3D printing process through the precise printing of mass numbers of small pieces. Once he completed the printing, he set about fitting the minute components inside each module.
It was a learning process – Maxime had to redo some steps several times where he ran into problems, such as lengthy wires taking up too much space, or pieces accidentally touching because of the unusually compact design. Through this process, Maxime learned about robotics, electronics, 3D printing, mechanics, computing, Bluetooth, coding, making, building and AI. “It was all new for me, and I learned a lot,” Maxime says.
Maxime feels that he was “very lucky” to work on this type of project. “I am certain that this kind of robot will be everywhere in the future to help humans in difficult tasks,” he says.
As Maxime concludes the project, he has one thing to say: “Thank you FabLab, and thank you Wevolver!”