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At last, plug-and-play modular actuators (think LEGOs for robotics engineers)

Engineers hate worrying about the "low level crap" of robotics development. This hardware trend is helping.

The LEGOs comparison. It's a painful but inevitable pitch for anything modular.

It's also an apt way to describe the concept driving HEBI Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based startup at the vanguard of a movement to bring modular components to robotics development.

Founded by a team from robotics powerhouse Carnegie Mellon, HEBI makes actuators and encoders that snap together to quickly form new robotic platforms.

The company's X-Series line of actuators (engineering speak for motors) contain sensors allowing for simultaneous control of velocity, torque, and position. Crucially, they're designed to fit into myriad new robotic systems on the fly.

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The approach addresses a lingering problem in robotics development. To advance the state of the art, engineers studying disciplines as varied as controls theory, gripping strategies, machine vision, and AI must first lay hands on suitable hardware.

Oftentimes that problem is solved with a task-agnostic platform, such as a collaborative robot like Baxter. Another grad lab mainstay is Turtlebot, a generic rolling cart that's now on its third iteration.

But task-agnostic platforms have obvious drawbacks. Special gripping, navigation, and sensing needs often require custom builds, which take a lot of time and testing. Since robotics development typically occurs on the time scale of a product cycle, master's thesis, or PhD dissertation, months wasted on hardware development can be prohibitive to the most ambitious projects.

Modular robotics can help by making snapping together and debugging a new platform quick.

Interestingly, it's a concept that first took hold in robotics kits targeting children. Products like Modi, Boson, and Cubelets snap together to allow kids to easily build and program functional robots.

More recently, new research from institutions like MIT, EPFL, and, of course, Carnegie Mellon has brought the idea of modular construction to functional robotics.

According to a recent paper in the Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems:

Some of the main advantages of using modular robots are to provide the system with versatility and configurability (either through manual or autonomous reconfigurability), to increase fault tolerance, to make the system scalable, and to reduce the production cost as only one or few module types need to be mass produced and therefore eliminating the need for assembly between parts.

The concept of reconfigurable modular robots was first proposed by researchers from Nagoya University in 1990.

HEBI has proved the versatility of the modular concept with gimmicks like its 24-minute manipulator, a custom robotic arm that takes just 24 minutes to put together.

The company is currently small and lean, like the products and concept it sells. We'll be watching closely to see if it expands.