Rotopod Rotational Legged Locomotion Robot

The rotopod is a robot that walks using rotational legged locomotion. The robot has a continuously whirling mass attached to the top of the device. The Rotopod takes a step by shortening the length of one of its legs. When the reaction mass traverses that leg, the other two legs lift off the ground for a moment. With no reaction torque, the whole body rotates a prescribed amount, thereby moving in a selected direction.

(Rotopod prototypes)

The device was designed by Damian Lyon and Frank Hsu in the Robotics and Computer Vision lab at Fordham University; their work appears to be based on a paper published by DM Lyons and K. Pamnany and presented in 2005. Rotopod was developed with a grant by the US DoD; the goal was to create a low-cost, lightweight robot that can maintain its stability while moving across uneven ground.

The Rotopod is able to "walk" in a variety of different gaits, none of which correspond to direct, bipedal motion. One is called "spiral walking" in which the robot occasionally describes a full circle in the course of walking. The final result looks like a prolate cycloid. The Rotopod has gaits that cover paths that can be described in terms of width as well as mere length.

(Early Rotopod prototype)

In a sense, the Rotopod is a "virtual wheel" in which the legs act as spokes.

If you think this sounds a little like the spider tripod robot that Arthur C. Clarke describes in his 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama, you're right. In fact, the authors specifically cite Clarke's idea as one of the inspirations for their design.

Ten metres away was a slender-legged tripod surmounted by a spherical body no larger than a football. Set around the body were three large, expressionless eyes, apparently giving 360 degrees of vision, and trailing beneath it were three whiplike tendrils... It reminded Norton of nothing so much as a three-legged spider, or daddy-long-legs, and he wondered how it had solved the problem - never challenged by any creature on Earth - of tripedal locomotion...

...each leg in turn acted as a pivot around which the creature whirled its body... it also seemed to him that every few 'steps' it reversed its direction of spin, while the three whips flickered over the ground like lightning as it moved.
(Read more about Clarke's spider tripod robot)

The original paper for the Rotopod is Rotational legged locomotion; see also this webpage at Fordham University Rotational Legged Locomotion. Thanks to an anonymous reader for the tip on this story!

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/22/2009)

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