It’s scientifically impossible to use a tape measure to just measure something. It’s the workshop tool of 1,000 other useless uses, including lightsabers, or seeing how far it can extend before the tape collapses. Researchers at Stanford University have found yet another use for the tape measure: as a way for robots to navigate rough terrain by taking advantage of the terrain itself.
ReachBot is actually an ongoing research project between Stanford’s Biomimetics & Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory, Stanford’s Autonomous Systems Lab, and NASA. The team hopes this novel approach to locomotion will make the robot good at exploring rough terrain, including underground caves and caverns without getting stuck on natural obstacles like other robots can.
We’ve known about the idea behind ReachBot for a few years now. Instead of legs or wheels or even a propeller, the robot would use a series of long extendable booms with grippers on the end to reach out and grab onto objects in order to pull itself along. It’s a similar approach to how Spider-Man uses his webs to swing through a city, or how Batman uses his grappling gun to make giant leaps without superpowers, but slower and safer given ReachBot could be over 100 million kilometers away from its operators on Earth.
It looks like Stanford’s BDML finally has a semi-working prototype of ReachBot that it’s using to demonstrate and further study the effectiveness of this unique approach to locomotion. But instead of employing custom-engineered extendable booms, it’s starting out more modestly with four self-extending tape measures.
ReachBot can’t swing through caves just yet, but in a video recently shared on YouTube, it’s able to slowly move around a smooth concrete floor by extending its tape measure booms and using custom-built grippers on the ends to secure itself to large rocks scattered around the test facility. The approach allows it to move from point A to point B with relative ease, but it has added benefits as well. At one point in the video, ReachBot uses three of its tape measure booms to lock onto three large rocks, and then the fourth to reach out and drag a heavy rock closer, allowing it to grab samples, or simply reposition the rock as another anchor point for its next move.
There’s currently no timeline for when ReachBot will be ready to blast off and explore other planets. As clever as repurposing tape measures is, it will need to rely on booms with a longer and more secure reach. As anyone who’s ever played with a tape measure before knows, you can really only extend it five or six feet before the tape ‘snaps’ under its own weight and collapses. Nasa’s not going to be sending Craftsman’s finest to Mars anytime soon.