Meet Minibot: The Little Robot That Can

August 28, 2015

Minibot, a custom designed and 3-D printed robot, was created as a part of a Volgenau senior design project. Photo provided.

Minibot, a custom designed and 3-D printed robot, was created as a part of a Volgenau senior design project. Photo provided.

By Martha Bushong

When disaster strikes or dangerous work needs doing, humans look to robots for help. That’s why undergraduate engineering students at George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering are building robotic systems of the future today.

Consider the cleanup after a meltdown of three Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan in 2011, which seemed like a perfect task for robots to prove themselves. But many challenges made the chore too difficult. The robots used at the site couldn’t climb stairs or ladders, navigate the debris-ridden areas, or pick up tools. And the robot operators were specialists in nuclear cleanup, not robotics, so by the time they learned how to control the robot helpers, much of the damage was done.

The “Minibot” design team members with their adviser: Martyna Bula, Patrick Early, Mason professor Daniel Lofaro, Mannan Javid, and Eric Eide. Photo courtesy of Lofaro.

The “Minibot” design team members with their adviser: Martyna Bula, Patrick Early, Mason professor Daniel Lofaro, Mannan Javid, and Eric Eide. Photo courtesy of Lofaro.

A system like the award-winning senior design project Apparatus for Remote Control of Humanoid Robots (ARCHR) and its little robot “Minibot” could make a big difference. Minibot, a pint-size humanoid robot, weighs less than five pounds and can be controlled and manipulated with virtual reality gear by amateur users who have little or no training.

Standing 18 inches tall, Minibot is proportioned like an average human. The robot moves on six wheels for stability and its arms end in claw-like pinchers that allow it to pick up and hold objects. The real innovation, however, comes with the user interface. Because Minibot is kinematically scaled and includes haptic feedback, the operator feels and sees what the robot feels and sees.

“We chose this design for its agility and flexibility,” said Martyna Bula, one of the members of the senior design team. “We used AutoCAD for the design, did the code in open source so anyone can use it, and printed the parts with a 3-D printer.”

The students admit that they didn’t really know much about 3-D printing when they started, so there was a bit of a learning curve. It takes a long time to print parts—in fact, the robot’s tiny head took 18 hours.

After building the prototype, the students put the system through its paces with untrained users, such as middle school students, Mason undergraduates, and faculty members.

“We had the most fun when we took the system to the Johnson Center during lunch time and asked people to try it out. People were very curious and eager to test their skills,” Bula said.

The students discovered that even people without previous experience could learn to use it quickly.

What’s next for Minibot? Daniel Lofaro, associate professor and the team’s advisor, has submitted a grant to the National Science Foundation that proposes using the little robot and its system in such places as Ebola-stricken Africa, where it can perform tasks for longer periods of time than hazmat-suited humans.

“I’m impressed with what these students were able to do with the design, building, and testing of the robot,” Lofaro said. “This year’s seniors already have plans to take the design and modify it by making it smaller.”