Jun 6, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed a robotic system that uses 3D scanning to intelligently stack and balance irregularly shaped objects. The robot could someday be used to build habitats on Mars.

(Image: Gizmodo)

Considering all the amazing things that robots can do, building one that stacks rocks hardly seems like the best use of a roboticist’s time. But that’s exactly what researchers at ETH Zurich have done, in the hope that such a rock-stacking robot could someday be used to build useful structures like walls and even buildings.

At the 2017 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Singapore last week, researchers from ETH Zurich presented a paper detailing their unusual robotic system, which is currently capable of 3D scanning irregularly shaped objects, picking them up, and stacking them vertically.

The researchers say such robots could eventually be used to build breakwaters, to clear up rubble after a building’s demolition, or to construct giant stone walls to defend against extreme weather. The robotic system could even be implemented on Mars to build habitats for human settlers using local materials.

Stacking rocks might not seem like such an impressive feat, but making a robot perform the task is harder than you might think. That’s because figuring out which potential configurations of uneven objects will balance and which will topple requires a great deal of information, most of which we glean with our eyes.

Accordingly, this robot uses “eyes” (of a sort) to determine the shape and size of the individual objects it needs to stack. These eyes, however, are actually a 3D scanner and a camera.

“The point cloud and mesh model of the object’s geometric shape [are] acquired with an ATOS Core high precision scanner,” the researchers explain in their paper. A separate RGB-D depth camera mounted on the robot arm then keeps an eye on the individual objects as the arm moves them around.

When the robotic system has collected 3D data about each irregular object, it can create a virtual environment containing digital representations of the objects. This environment allows the system to simulate how each object should be oriented and positioned so that it will balance on top of the previously placed object.

Then, in the real world, a robotic arm attempts to carry out the virtual simulations on the real objects.

In practice, the robot’s three-fingered arm occasionally causes the tower of objects to topple, after which it will recognize the failure of the attempt before trying another configuration. The researchers say the robot has been able to stack as many as six rocks in a vertical tower.

Ultimately, this unusual robotic system could prove advantageous over more traditional construction robots, which are only designed to place evenly shaped objects like bricks. But the researchers aren’t finished: they now hope to develop a more advanced system that can work with unidentified or partially identified objects, and which can build other structures, including arches and walls.

The authors of the research paper were Fadri Furrer, Martin Wermelinger, Hironori Yoshida, Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Roland Siegwart, and Marco Hutter.



Posted in 3D Scanning



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