ATRON: A New Shape Shifting Robot

Posted 17 Nov 2004 at 18:01 UTC by steve Share This

ATRON is a "homegeneous unit modular self-reconfigurable robot system", more commonly known as a shape-shifting robot. Developed by Henrik Hautop Lund and other researchers at the Maersk Institute AdapTronics Group, ATRON is a cubic lattice of self-contained modules that can attach to each other, share power, and communicate to form a larger robot of the desired shape. Each module is composed of two hemispheres, connected by a slip-ring so they can rotate independently while still transferring power and communicating with each other. The "northern" hemisphere of each module contains an Atmel ATMega 128 microcontroller. Each module also contains internal and external sensors including a 2-axis accelerometer. For more details there is a short technical paper (PDF format) available describing the ATRON system. It includes photos and diagrams of the modules. Other papers on ATRON and self-reconfiguring robotics in general are available as is list of other self-reconfiguring robot projects. There is also an ATRON simulator. For the curious, the name is a combination of Atom and elecTRON and a play on the name of a previous shape-shifting robot called MTRAN (Modular TRANsformer). And, don't forget to see the recent NewScientist article submitted by The Swirling Brain that brought ATRON to my attention.

ATRON and other self-reconfigurable robo, posted 18 Nov 2004 at 22:07 UTC by wildmage » (Journeyer)

Glad to see this get some press. I had a chance to meet Kasper Stoy, Hendrik Lund, and others who were working on the ATRON project last month in Tsukuba, Japan. We were having a satellite workshop on modular robotics in the shadow of the IROS2004 robotics conference at Sendai, Japan.

I also work in the lab of the CONRO project, which you'll see on that link to the list of other modular robot projects.

I got to handle and look at the ATRON module up close. At the time, they only had a couple working modules and the rest were being hastily assembled by their army of Chinese students back in Denmark. The thing that I was truly impressed with were their mechanical connectors. The connectors are a pair of interlocking levers that have some capacity to correct for misalignment. So, even if your modules are poorly misaligned with respect to each other, the connector can correct for this and bring them back into alignment.

The other useful innovation was their power distribution system. Power in modular robots is a true sore because you either have to have onboard batteries that add lots of weight and need to be replaced frequently, or you have to have all your modules tethered, which makes it really hard to do shape-shifting and locomotion. Their power distribution system means that modules can share their battery power with other modules its connected to. This makes things dramatically easier, and I'm glad they found a way to do it.

Communication between the modules is achieved by IR emitter/detector pairs. This seems to be a common method among modular robot builders because it reduces the need for making wire contacts with the connectors.

Kasper Stoy, one of the project members, used to be a lab member of the ISI Polymorphic Robotics groups, where I now work, and he graduated here and got his PhD. We're seeding the Earth and pretty soon, you'll see shape-shifting robots everywhere you go! They're only starting to get more and more popular with time.

Jacob Everist

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