Engadget is reporting today on an article at Discovery.com about a new concept robot that will use an innovative means of locomotion: rimless wheels instead of traditional wheels or legs. The robot, dubbed IMPASS (Intelligent Mobility Platform with Active Spoke System), will have four rimless wheels. Three spokes that pass through each axle will lengthen or shorten independently during movement based on the type of ground the robot covering. This combination of wheel and leg is being called a “wheg” and could revolutionize the way robots are able to adapt to and traverse different types of terrain.
Not even to the prototype stage yet, the IMPASS concept is the brainchild of Dennis Hong and Doug Laney of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The wheg design has tackled a problem that has been bothersome to robot builders for some time. Wheels work great on flat surfaces, allowing fast and smooth motion. On the other hand, legs are more suited for moving over rough, uneven surfaces but usually cannot provide the same speed or smoothness over flat terrain as wheeled robots. Whegs are the best of both worlds. By adjusting the lengths of the spokes on the fly, the wheg can emulate a wheel or a leg based on how many points of contact there are between the wheg and the ground. Turning is also achieved in this manner.
Hong and Laney are not alone in their research into rimless wheels. Scientists at other universities are also developing similar robots. Unlike the IMPASS, however, the other robots being developed do not have control over the individual spokes on their whegs making them less mobile over inconsistent terrain.
Hong and Laney hope to have a functioning prototype of IMPASS early next year.