When the need to move super-heavy objects arises, short, squat crawlers are usually deployed to get the job done. Unfortunately, that heavy lifting ability comes at the sacrifice of mobility (no sideways motion), so maneuvering objects into place can be a lengthy process. Recently, researchers from Japan's Osaka University (OU) rolled out an innovative battery-powered, remotely controlled prototype crawler that incorporates properties from an omni-directional wheel known as the Omni-Ball (also designed by the OU team), to travel in virtually any direction desired with minimal energy loss. They dubbed it the Omni-Crawler, and it could change the way things are moved from now on.
We've been following the quest for omni-directional robots/vehicles for some time, so the general concept is far from new. This device is unique, however, in that it utilizes two cylindrical crawlers which borrow properties from the team's unusual, two-piece ball-shaped wheels. The Omni-Balls consist of two matching hemispherical "wheels" connected to one another on either side of a short axle. The separate halves can rotate independently of one another, or in tandem as a complete sphere.
"By rotating the axle dynamically using a motor, we can effectively combine the direction of the driving force and the direction in which the structure moves as a caster. A moving object with at least three of these wheels can generate a driving force in all directions," explained OU's Kenjiro Tadukama.
"With a conventional crawler, if you position it to enter a narrow space, the crawler has to turn round repeatedly, but this crawler can move sideways as well, so it's easy to fine-tune its movements," said Tadukama. "Ordinarily, there's a lot of energy loss due to turning, but this crawler can be positioned immediately by moving to the side just a little. So we think this crawler can greatly minimize energy loss as well."
The OU researchers also showcased a number of other devices, including a "planetary exploration robot," that are based on the Omni-Ball/Crawler technology - many of them are outlined in the video below. Indeed, the potential applications for this technology seem endless, so we may see many things rolling along a lot more smoothly in the not-too-distant future.