The MODular Professor
Since his arrival at Penn Engineering, professor Mark Yim has been combining cutting-edge research with a passion for teaching, at once advancing the field of modular robotics, and preparing the next generation of roboticists and engineers.
Yim’s unique brand of intellectual intensity and easy-going demeanor permeates his work, creating a ripple effect of interest, engagement, and achievement. In his research, Yim is working to transform robots from large, stationary, single-purpose machines into smaller, mobile multi-taskers which will be less expensive to manufacture, more versatile, and robust enough to fix or replace their own parts.
Similar in scope to the shift from the switchboard to the cell phone, Yim’s research has the potential to transform automation from a static to a dynamic means of achieving tasks, from search and rescue missions and space station repairs to household chores and children’s entertainment. At the center of this evolution is ckBot (Connector Kinetic Robot), the latest incarnation of the work that Yim began as a graduate student at Stanford University almost 20 years ago, when the field of modular self-reconfiguring robots (MSR) was new. At Stanford, Yim demonstrated a proof of concept for a modular robot that could adjust its gait to roll, crawl, walk and slither in order to cover different terrains, and arrange its parts to suit the task assigned to it. He furthered this work at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, before coming to Penn as the Gabel Family Term Junior Professor of Mechanical Engineering and head of the Modular Robotics (Mod) Lab, a part of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Lab.
The GRASP Lab provides an ideal environment for ckBot’s development. “Robotics is an interdisciplinary field,” says Yim, himself an expert in electronics, mechanical design, and control systems. “You have to know computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. So the opportunity to interact with other experts in robotics is one of the really fantastic things about the GRASP Lab.” Fitting in the palm of your hand, a ckBot module is a marvel of interdisciplinary engineering. It is comprised of a plastic body equipped with accelerometers for locomotion, motorized joints with a 180-degree range of motion, proximity sensors and four connector interfaces so that ckBot can magnetically link up with its neighbors. A communications protocol on an embedded computer allows modules to check in with each other, and communicate with the ckBot’s central control, so that decisions can be made about configurations, location, and gait. It’s hard to see ckBot in action and not pause in awe of its autonomy and resilience as it reassembles and moves on.
Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “The MODular Professor” by Cathy Von Elm .