Designing nature-inspired components for modular robotics platform

The Robot Report

Philip Norman, Branwen Norman and Tom Foale presenting the iBOID and EXTRM SC 2.0 robots.

Solid Edge® software enables Ross Robotics design engineers to create reconfigurable ground-based robots.

Imagine a robot that’s as strong as an armadillo and as nimble as a gecko. One that’s as tenacious as salmon swimming upstream, as dexterous as a chimp using tools and as tough as a cockroach in a radioactive area. Thanks to sophisticated, tightly integrated product development tools, these robotic systems are no longer just an engineering fantasy; they’re becoming a reality in industries ranging from agriculture to defense.

Founded in 2015, Ross Robotics designs and manufactures modular, ground-based robots that are inspired by the natural world. What differentiates its approach is the fact that its robotic modules fit together and are configurable in many ways. This modular robotic delivery platform, called Robosynthesis, has resulted in the creation of many multi-mission robots — from security bots equipped with RGB cameras, infrared cameras and movement detectors, to autonomous robots that can navigate hazardous locations.

The iBOID can swim and tackle tough terrain — an ideal combination for surveillance.

Whereas typical building-block systems restrict users to connecting pieces in two or three directions, the Robosynthesis platform has no such limits. Thanks to Solid Edge design and development software, Philip Norman, Ross Robotics co-founder and chief technical officer (CTO), designed the geometries of this system based on axial and orthogonal repositioning principles. In other words, end users can fit the components together at any angle, and the resulting composite angles are infinitely adjustable. “Our robots might all look different, but they use the same parts,” Norman explains. “This capability lets us assemble and reassemble off-the-shelf robots for different purposes — all on demand.”

From Concept to Reality with Solid Edge

Norman conceived the Robosynthesis platform two decades ago while he was living in France. At the time, an engineer friend introduced Norman to Solid Edge as they explored a new construction toy together. “It was a revelation,” Norman says. “What started as a dreamy intellectual idea suddenly became sharp and clear. The more I explored Solid Edge, the more functionality I discovered.”

Using Solid Edge’s comprehensive suite of product development tools, Norman could simply sketch an idea, then extrude the drawing to create a three-dimensional shape — putting bits and pieces together to create an assembly. “I would update a part, and then the software would automatically update the entire assembly,” Norman says. “It was pure delight. And to top it all off, I could break up an assembly and start over whenever I wanted. There were lots of little ‘eureka!’ moments as I grew quicker and more confident in the software.”

Norman’s ideas continued to evolve. For several years, he provided college students with the opportunity to study mechatronics and prototyping at the French Institute for Advanced Mechanics (IFMA), which is now the French graduate engineering school, SIGMA Clermont. Shortly after, a suggestion from a family member led Norman to the field of modular robotics. “My main challenge was to create and build one part that could join several components together and rotate,” Norman says.

Norman has worked as an artist, author and designer. He is also the co-founder of Ross Robotics.

Achieving Complexity Through Simplicity

Norman’s solution came in the form of a universal connector that fixes in any direction. A critical aspect of the Robosynthesis platform, this patented connector lets users easily alter and update a Ross Robotics system without any technical expertise. The company’s current iteration of the connector, called the Slimline, uses canted coil springs and has a thickness of only 7.5 millimeters when mated. Each half of the Slimline is formed from selectively metallized polymers to create a sequence of conductors and insulators. And, the connector’s cone-to-cone mating is inherently robust when subjected to vibration, thermal cycles and sudden mechanical shock.

Other design milestones for Ross Robotics included a special jack plug that enables data transfer, communication and power charging, as well as CLAWWS™ Wheels, which — inspired by webbed duck feet — increase robotic traction and climbing in difficult environments.

“Finding the precise geometries for our modular system took a long time,” Norman admits. “But with Solid Edge, I never got stuck. I’d explore one version of a part, save it and then try another version. It was really helpful to keep all my options open.” Thanks to the software’s synchronous modeling technology, Norman also saved time. Whereas he used to have to budget an entire day for certain tasks, he was able to complete the same tasks in only a few hours with Solid Edge — a 75 percent reduction in time.

Drawing on the animal kingdom for inspiration, Norman designed the Ross Robots to have a low center of gravity for stability, as well as a tail that acts as a damper and prevents flipping. Other components are purposely springy and flexible, enabling the robots to be more agile and resilient. All components are manufactured using a computer numerical control (CNC) machine and then vacuum-cast in different plastics — a rigid, cost-effective material.

The plastics are then coated in a fine layer of metal, eliminating the need to use separate metal components. This metalization process, which also applies to the universal connector, leads to stronger, lighter and lower-cost parts. “Material science has been a whole new learning curve for me,” Norman says. “But thanks to Solid Edge, I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge about it — such as how to design parts for strength and flexibility.”

Norman uses Siemens Solid Edge software to design and develop his robots.

Functional Features, Elegant Design

One of Norman’s goals was to ensure the Robosynthesis Modular Platform was easy for untrained end users to understand and use. As a result, the platform doesn’t require any bolting at the industrial assembly stage; everything presses together and clicks. Other benefits since adopting Solid Edge have included:

  • Easy development of a wide range of components
  • Time savings of 75 percent on certain tasks
  • Ease of assembly for untrained end users
  • Positive feedback from potential customers
  • The ability to produce high-quality engineering drawings
  • The ability to render product images to support early marketing efforts

“The creative process works in mysterious ways,” Norman says. “A big challenge is to see where a concept might be going — and that’s not necessarily easy.” Thanks to Norman’s determination, however, the Robosynthesis platform holds many patents and is now attracting intense interest among government, commercial and charitable bodies for applications like demining, agriculture and infrastructure maintenance.

“Our robots are really only components,” Norman says. “And Solid Edge is key for us because it’s great for designing components.”

To learn more about Solid Edge, visit:

Norman testing a naked robot platform outside the Ross Robotics headquarters.

Sponsored By Solid Edge from Siemens

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Source: therobotreport

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