Constructing a multi-functional robot is now child's play — thanks to Carnegie Mellon University spin-off Modular Robotics and 'Cubelets.'
The reconfigurable robotic building blocks began as Eric Schweikardt's Ph.D. project. He and his advisor, Mark Gross, were inspired by "exciting" research in modular robotics and the hope of teaching early understanding of complex systems.
"The toys we play with as children affect how we see the world," explained Gross, CMU professor of architecture and director of the Computational Design Lab.
"We generally teach programming and design as a top-down activity, but the real world is more complex. Global behaviors arise from many small local interactions. We wanted to make a toy to foster that kind of thinking."
Each Cubelets 'block' performs one of three general functions — sense, act, or think. The finished creation's behavior depends on how the blocks are assembled.
For example, snap a light-sensor block on top of a drive-action block and the robot scoots away from a flashlight. Flip the driver around and it zooms toward the beam.
Gross and Schweikardt (A'08) knew they were on to something when lab visitors began asking where they could buy the toy. Favorable press resulted in calls from science centers and children's museums worldwide.
It was the beginning of Modular Robotics and they're still struggling to meet the growing demand.
The company secured early private funding through CMU's Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation (CTTEC). The center is part of Carnegie Mellon's Greenlighting Startups — a consortium of incubators designed to accelerate the university's impressive record of turning campus innovations into sustainable new businesses.
Schweikardt had originally come to CMU to work with Gross and his computation design lab.
"Mark is just fantastic," he added. "He gives tremendous freedom to his Ph.D. students. He encouraged me to head in the direction I found most engaging, and he offered support. It was an incredible opportunity."
And that direction included CMU's renowned Robotics Institute (RI).
"When I arrived, I don't think I'd ever said the word 'robot,' joked Schweikardt. "My first robotics class, though, gave me the basic idea for modules that could be easily reconfigured. Mark and my RI advisors, Illah Nourbakhsh and Metin Sitti, were invaluable in helping me figure out how Cubelets could have the greatest impact."
As Gross noted, "The College of Fine Arts can be a place for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Cubelets were designed, engineered, and executed in the School of Architecture. Real designers know no disciplinary boundaries."
He added, "CMU's own Herb Simon reminds us, "Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law and medicine are all centrally concerned with the process of design."