Whip-Tail Robot Learning to Manipulate Objects Like Indiana Jones

Robots are learning how to use tails in all sorts of different ways. U.C. Berkeley had that brilliant idea of using an active tail to control the orientation of a robot in mid air, and that basic idea has expanded to running robots with and even robotic cars looking for hyper maneuverability. The thing that all of these robots have in common with each other, and with animals, is that their tails are actuated: in order to function, they depend on motors to get them to move around and do stuff. And of course they’re actuated, because what use would they be if you couldn’t control them?

Young-Ho Kim and Dylan A. Shell from Texas A&M University recently published a paper in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters on “Using a Compliant, Unactuated Tail to Manipulate Objects.” Rather than relying on motors to actuate the tail, they hooked up a “a flexible rope-like structure” (aka a piece of rope, as far as we can tell) to a little RC car to see what they could do with it. You can think of the tail like Indiana Jones’ whip, and just like Indy has shown us across four and a half movies, there’s a lot you can do with some cleverly manipulated rope if you know what you’re doing.

What you’ll see in this very research-y video is a robot with a tail executing a series of “motion primitives” that allow the tail to manipulate objects by dragging them or hitting them. For example,…[Read more]