Colorado State grad student Greg Schroll has taken the idea of the spherical robot -- basically a robot contained in a ball, as seen above -- and made it a reality. Well, not quite a reality, but close enough for Schroll to be named one of Popular Mechanics' 10 Most Brilliant Innovators of 2009.
"What I have is a concept prototype." Schroll says. "My hope is that what I created can someday be deployed in a real situation, but there is still a lot of work to do."
The project grew not from some quest to do good through robots, but from a quest to screw around. "Growing up, I was involved with projects that interest me, pretty much for fun," Schroll says. "The spherical robot started as a thesis project at MIT, but I though it was cool, and once finished I realized this had some serious applications."
Among those applications, he says, are use on environmentally hazardous sites and underwater and space exploration.
The attraction, for engineers and sci-fi geeks alike, is the near flawless construction. "Spherical robots have distinct advantages over four-wheel vehicles," Schroll explains. "It is one complete enclosed ball with no obvious weaknesses like wheels, there are no points to allow dirt to get in and it can't flip over."
The challenge, for Schroll and others, was creating enough momentum for the bot that it could traverse rough terrain. "Other designs never had the agility or torque to traverse rough terrain," Schroll says. "So the question was, how do I make it climb over big objects?"
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Using gyroscopes to maintain momentum was the answer Schroll was looking for.
It was a discovery that could one day be lucrative for Schroll. As part of MIT policy, intellectual property is retained by students, and while work has continued on the project at CSU, Schroll plans to keep his name on the finished product.
"Intellectual property rights at this level is always complicated and up for debate." Schroll says. "But this is totally mine and I am personally filing the patent."
Although Schroll's time at CSU is running out, he hopes to create a working prototype to test here in Colorado. After a hiking trip this past weekend to the Flat Irons in Boulder, he saw the perfect challenge for a working prototype: a steep hundred foot cascade of boulders.