Meet Cubli: Swiss Team Builds Robotic Box That Walks And Balances On One Corner

By Ben Wolford on December 22, 2013 2:42 PM EST

Cubli
A team of scientists have developed Cubli, a robotic box that walks and can balance on one corner.

This cube does things other cubes only wish they could do. Called the Cubli, this robotic box is the latest technological breakthrough from the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control in Zurich, Switzerland. Using motors and inertia sensors inside a metallic frame, Cubli can flip itself over, balance on one edge or corner, and effectively walk itself across a floor. If the floor starts shaking and tilting, it doesn't bother Cubli; its internal momentum wheels keep it perfectly still.

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Researchers say the technology that makes Cubli possible has potential applications in space or in planet exploration. But otherwise, as the developers noted in its promotional video and in the paper explaning the way it works, Cubli just looks cool. The jumping technology, they wrote, is "not only an interesting concept for the control engineer but also also an appealing demonstration for the general public."

It doesn't actually jump into the air. Rather, it stands itself upright from a flat resting position by spinning its momentum wheels at a high velocity and then suddenly stopping them, throwing the cube onto one of its corners or edges. Once upright, the momentum wheels torque the opposite direction to stabilize it. The wheels continue subtle rotations depending on which direction the sensors perceive it to be falling, guaranteeing that it perfectly maintains its balance.

All the parts are super basic: three wheels, motors, and a battery. Other key elements are the inertial sensors, motor controllers, and a processor. It's similar to the technology that stabilizes satellites in space. "Once complete, the Cubli will provide an inexpensive, open source test-bed with a relatively small footprint for research and education in estimation and control," wrote Mohanarajah Gajamohan and the rest of the team.

The "walking" comes into play when the Cubli operator combines its abilities to jump onto an edge, balance, and controlled fall to the opposite plane. Repeat these movements, and the 15-centimeter-tall Cubli can roll across the floor unaided. "Algorithms for controlling pendulum systems are an active area of research today," the developers said, acknowledging that their toy is not based on breakthrough technology.

But what is new about Cubli is its size. Most devices harness inertial forces are much bigger than Cubli's tiny footprint. It takes its name from the German diminutive for cube. Additionally, the jumping capability without external influence is cutting edge. "Some researchers hope to use this method of locomotion for planetary exploration, while others are using for self-assembling robots," the narrator in Cubli's promotional video says. "But for us, it is just a cool little cube."

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