Moveable and morphable: shape-changing robotic furniture forms future of urban living

Scientists have developed robotic modules that can combine and change shape to create furniture that is both moveable and reconfigurable.

The modules, dubbed Roombots, are paving the way for rooms that can be changed between pre-programmed layouts at the touch of a button.

Within decades, the vast majority of the world’s population is likely to be living in urban areas, and with space at a premium, a technology that enables easy switching of a room’s use is likely to be highly prized.

“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,” explained Auke Ijspeert, head of the Biorobotics Laboratory at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where the robots were developed.

roobots-detail

Each Roombot module is 22cm (8.6in) long and has the appearance of two jumbo dice stuck together. Inside a wireless connection, battery and three motors provide three angles for each module to twist on, enabling a range of movement.

Modules can connect to each other to create larger structures using retractable claws.

These claws can also be used to connect to non-robotic items of furniture fitted with special connecting panels, either to incorporate them into larger structures or to move them around.

roobots-box

The Roombots’ ability to move future has also led its designers to suggest that it could be developed as an aid for the elderly or disabled.

“It could be very useful for disabled individuals to be able to ask objects to come closer to them, or to move out of the way,” added Ijspeert.

Robotic technology is likely to play an increasing role in the care of the elderly, particularly with an ageing population in many western countries.

Technologies that allow people to stay in their own home for longer are likely to be favoured, and the Roombots could provide the perfect mix of care and independence that is required.

The Roombots is a technology that is very much in its infancy, although the effectiveness of the prototype version suggests that it holds significant potential.

“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,” said Ijspeert.”We’re open to any possibility.”

At present EPFL has challenged French school children to come up with ideas for the technology, with favoured entries including modular sound and lighting equipment and roving flower pots.

Work on the Roombots is still ongoing, and the team is currently focused on refining the technology, including improving and speeding up the movement of groups of Roombots and working on the algorithms used to form different structures.


Images courtesy of EPFL.


Video: Is fusion the key to solving the world’s energy problems?

Fusion energy could be the solution to all the world’s energy problems and help to power the world for the next 30 million years.

However to develop the solution we need to be able to work together and collaborate on the problem, a leading figure in the research has said.

Professor Steve Cowley is the head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in the UK, which currently has two fusion reactors the European project JET and the UK-funded MAST.

The centre has been a leading driver of fusion for the last 25 years and holds the world record for energy produced.

Factor spoke to Cowley about what the future of fusion will look like.

“The thing about fusion is that there’s just so much fuel. There’s 30m years worth of fuel for the easiest fusion reaction in sea water. For 30m years we could power the whole world out of fusion,” he said.

“I suspect in the future our energy will be produced in a portfolio of different ways but I suspect also that fusion will produce 50-60% of that. It’s a huge market.”

At present 35 countries from across Europe are working ITER a replacement to the JET project which has been running for 25 years.

The building commenced in 2007 but it has faced some difficulties including financial ones – as well as various bureaucratic fences that have needed climbing.

“People often ask me, ‘Do we need a moon project?’ ‘Do we need a Manhattan Project?’ ‘Do we need a project in which we really focus the whole world on delivering this?’ It would be very nice to do that.

“Once we’ve solved this problem of fusion we have essentially solved the problem of producing energy forever and maybe 200 years from now we will look back from now and we’ll say ‘it was so obvious what we had to do’ but it isn’t quite so obvious now.”

fusion-MAST

One of the largest challenges faced in coming years if fusion is going to be successfully commercialised is the need for it to be affordable.

“We’ve got to make energy that people want to actually buy. We’ve got to make it at a cost and it is very important that we keep the size down, we keep the cost down and we make it as efficient as possible.

“When we come to market we want the consumer to want to buy the electricity and this is what the drive of this experiment is.

Cowley said that the first electricity will be made by 2040s and then it will be a case of commercialisation and effectively reducing the cost.

He said: “All the technology that has to go into these devices like JET and like MAST is at the cutting edge of what we’re capable of doing.

“What we have to be able to do is make that technology cheaply, efficiently, simply so that it becomes a practical power source rather than something you can do in science labs.”

fusion-MAST-shot

In the race to create commercial fusion power that can be incorporated into the grid and purchased by customers China is pouring massive resources into its research and development.

“It’s a funny question to whether they are a competitor or a colleague because we collaborate with them greatly because the fact is that fusion is for the world it is not for one nation. Solving the world’s energy problem is for all of us,” Cowley said.

“Global warming is global and it is going to affect everybody. In fact it is probably going to effect the poor much more than the wealthy.”

fusion-MAST-people

At present the MAST reactor at the centre in Culham is undergoing a £30m upgrade which has been temporarily moved to allow the work to be completed.

The scientists working at the centre hope the smaller tokamak will be able to help the commercialisation process advance by creating fusion in a smaller environment and also provide useful research for ITER.

The upgrade work will allow the pulse length inside to be increase as well as more heating power.

Cowley said: “We’ve craned it out and we’re installing all the new innards to it and this time next year we will be commissioning it and getting it ready to run so it is a very exciting time here at Culham.”

You can read more about the Culham Centre and fusion energy in the article below 


Images courtesy of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.