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A trick taken from animals and being tested in mobility labs is the use of flexible-leg elements. A compliant member can sometimes be used to great advantage by reducing the requirement for exact leg placement. They are simple, extremely robust mobility systems that use independent leg-walking techniques. A simple version of this concept is closer to a wheeled robot than a walker. The tires are replaced with several long flexible arms, like whiskers, extending out from the wheel. This increases their ability to deal with large perturbations in the environ-
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Figure 7-15 Whisker-wheeled roller walker
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ment, but decreases efficiency. They have very high mobility, able to climb steps nearly as high as the legs are long. Robotics researchers are working on small four- and six-wheel leg robots that use this concept with very good results. Figure 7-15 shows the basic concept. A variation of this design extends the whisker legs more axially than radially. This idea is taken from studying cockroaches whose legs act like paddles when scrambling over bumpy terrain. If walking is being considered as the mobility system for an autonomous robot, there are several things to remember. Using a statically-stable design requires far less expertise in several fields of engineering and will therefore dramatically increase the chances of success. Frame walking is easier to implement than wave- or independent-leg walking. Studies have shown six legs are optimal for most applications. Rotary joints are usually more robust.
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Walkers have inherently more degrees of freedom, which increases complexity and debug time. As will be investigated in the chapter on mobility, walkers deal with rugged terrain very well, but may not actually be the best choice for a mobility system. Roller walkers offer the advantages of both walking and rolling and in a well thought out design may prove to be very effective. Walkers have been built in many varieties. Some are variations on what has been presented here. Some are totally different. In general, with the possible exception of the various roller walkers, they share two common problems, they are complicated and slow. Nature has figured out how to make high-density actuators and control many of them at a time at very high speed. Humans have figured out how to make the wheel and its close cousin, the track. The fastest land animal, the cheetah, has been clocked at close to 100km/hr. The fastest land vehicle has hit more than seven times that speed. Contrarily, a mountain goat can literally run along the face of a steep cliff and a cockroach can scramble over terrain that has obstacles higher than itself, and can do so at high speed. There are no human-made locomotion devices that can even come close to a goat s or cockroach s combined speed and agility. Nature has produced what is necessary for survival, but nothing more. Her most intelligent product has not yet been able to produce anything that can match the mobility of several of her most agile products. Perhaps someday we will. For the person just getting started in robotics, or for someone planning to use a robot to do a practical task, it is suggested to start with a wheeled or tracked vehicle because of their greater simplicity. For a mechanical engineer interested in designing a complex mechanism to learn about statics, dynamics, strength of materials, actuators, kinematics, and control systems, a walking robot is an excellent tool.
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Pipe Crawlers and Other Special Cases
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here are many less obvious applications for mobile robots. One particularly interesting problem is inspecting and repairing pipelines from the inside. Placing a robot inside a pipe reduces and, sometimes, removes the need to dig up a section of street or other obstruction blocking access to the pipe. The robot can be placed inside the pipe at a convenient location by simply separating the pipe at an existing joint or valve. These pipe robots, commonly called pipe crawlers, are very special designs due to the unique environment they must work in. Pipe crawlers already exist that inspect, clean, and/or repair pipes in nuclear reactors, water mains under city streets, and even down five-mile long oil wells. Though the shape of the environment may be round and predictable, there are many problems facing the locomotion system of a pipe crawler. The vehicle might be required to go around very sharp bends, through welded, sweated, or glued joints. Some pipes are very strong and the crawlers can push hard against the walls for traction, some are very soft like heating ducts requiring the crawler to be both light and gentle. Some pipes transport slippery oil or very hot water. Some pipes, like water mains and oil pipelines, can be as large as several meters in diameter; other pipes are as small as a few centimeters. Some pipes change size along their length or have sections with odd shapes. All these pipe types have a need for autonomous robots. In fact, pipe crawling robots are frequently completely autonomous because of the distance they must travel, which can be so far that it is nearly impossible to drag a tether or communicate by radio to the robot when it is inside the pipe. Other pipe crawlers do drag a tether which can place a large load on the crawler, forcing it to be designed to pull very hard, especially while going straight up a vertical pipe. All of these problems place unusual and difficult demands on the crawler s mechanical components and locomotion system. End effectors on these types of robots are usually inspection tools that measure wall thickness or cameras to visually inspect surface conditions. Sometimes mechanical tools are employed to scrape off surface rust or other corrosion, plug holes in the pipe wall, or, in the case of oil wells, blow holes in the walls. These effectors are not complex mechanically
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