Caltech has a new RC car-sized robot that can change its shape to drive, fly, and walk to meet the needs of the moment. In its press release, the university compares the M4 — short for Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot, which sounds like a rejected pitch for a ’90s kids’ show — to a Transformer, and it’s not too far from the truth.
The robot is packed with electronics, motors, and a small computer that lets it decide what form it should take to get around. The team that made it gave the M4 large wheels that can, in seconds, swing up to become something more akin to a drone’s rotors and fly. It can also use its rotors to help it up a steep slope while the back wheels drive it forward from the ground, as described in a paper in Nature Communications. Alternatively, if the robot needs to get across a particularly rough patch of ground or needs a better view of what’s ahead, it can stand up on two wheels and use them more like feet.
The M4 was designed by Mory Gharib, a professor of aeronautics and bioinspired engineering at Caltech, in partnership with Alireza Ramezani, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University. The Nature Communication paper describing how the M4 works includes graphics illustrating the various forms it can take, as well as cute drawings of the animals that inspired the project, like meerkats and walruses. The paper says the robot is powered by a Jetson Nano CPU, Nvidia’s affordable, robotics-focused miniature computer.
Is the M4 a vampire? Because this is how a vampire stands up.GIF: Caltech
In all, the M4 can “achieve eight distinct types of motion,” and Caltech’s press release says it can decide what to do autonomously using artificial intelligence to survey surrounding conditions. Gharib says its abilities could be useful when shuttling injured people to hospitals or exploring other planets.
Caltech has made a few other fun, similarly versatile robots. LEONARDO, for example, is a bipedal robot with propellers for arms that can help it fly or stabilize it when it walks, producing a noise that makes it sound as though spooky little ghosts are what animates it. The school also made a launchable transforming drone.