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Patent of the Month – Robotic Bouncing Ball

Patent of the Month –  Robotic Bouncing Ball

| On 31, Mar 2019

Darrell Mann

Well, I never expected to be featuring a patent assigned to Disney in this section of the ezine, but here we are. Never say never. I suppose, too, the presence of California Institute of Technology has a bearing on matters. That plus the fact that an awful lot of breakthrough solutions start life as toys.

Anyway, the patent in question is US10,092,850, which was granted to a quartet of inventors on October 9. Here’s what they have to say about the background to their invention:

Robotics is a rapidly expanding branch of engineering and science that includes mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and other disciplines. Robotics involves the design, construction, operation, and use of robots as well as computer systems, sensory feedback, and information processing to allow proper control of these robots. Often, those who work in robotics are developing robots that are designed to act and behave similar to humans and can be substituted for humans such as in dangerous environments or to perform highly repetitive tasks in a way that is humanlike.

In other cases, though, there are demands for robots that do not look, move, or behave like a human. For example, there has been for demand for robots and robotic characters with novel appearance and that use unusual or even difficult to recognize methods of locomotion. These robots can be used for entertainment in settings with larger crowds or to entertain users at home. In other cases, robots with unusual or uncommon locomotion can be used to perform household or industrial tasks such as vacuuming a room.

There are many examples of robotic characters from movies and comic books that have been developed for use to entertain or for use as toys. Each of these robots has been designed to be safe to operate by and among a crowd of people. Examples include tracked robots and robots that imitate movement of an animal-based character such as a dinosaur. More recently, robots that roll about a space have been created, and these rolling robots have thrilled audiences as they roll around and have been very popular as toys for all ages.

Hence, while there has been much progress in providing robots with unusual locomotion, there will continue for the foreseeable future to be a strong demand for robots with new and unexpected novel appearance and locomotion.

Mapping this one onto the Contradiction Matrix is not as easy as it is for most patents. The best way, I think is to recognize that, because right now the primary motivation is to create something that entertains people, the most appropriate improving feature is ‘Positive Intangibles’. In terms of the other side of the conflict, there are really two issues, the first relates to the difficulties of getting the ball to move in the ‘right’ (‘unexpected’) directions, and the other to the more pragmatic issue of powering the motion. Here’s how I mapped the two problems onto the Matrix:

And here’s how the inventors claim to have solved the problems:

The spherical body [Principle 14, Curvature] will typically be formed with a thin wall of elastomeric material or elastic material such as a rubber or the like [Principle 35B, Parameter Change, ‘increase flexibility]. A drive or actuator assembly will be positioned in the interior space of the body [Principle 7, Nested Doll] along with a local controller and a power source to cause the spherical body to bounce up and down vertically [Principle 19, Periodic Action] and to provide horizontal/lateral movement of the spherical body by selectively applying deforming and reforming/spring assist forces on the outer wall of the body [Principle 3, Local Quality]. Because the body is formed of a rubbery or elastic material, the robotic bouncing ball is relatively safe, and its bounce will allow it to ford obstacles that might hinder or block a rolling or walking robot.

In some embodiments, the robotic bouncing ball is adapted to be able to vary the height of each of its bounces [Principle 3, Local Quality]. Further, the robotic bouncing ball is able to plot and navigate a course either in a remotely controlled manner or with internal sensing and navigation (e.g., operations of its local controller or control system) [Principle 25, Self-Service]. This may involve utilizing cameras and other sensing modalities to observe and react to its environment. In some applications, a group of the robotic bouncing balls act in a coordinated way to provide a show or perform a task. In interactive settings, a person may participate with the robotic bouncing ball by, for instance, directing the robotic bouncing ball to jump through a hoop or to continue bouncing long after being dribbled by a person. In other cases, the person may instruct the robotic bouncing ball to follow them as they move about a space. The robotic bouncing ball may also include internal projection components that can be selectively operated by the controller to create an animated face or other special effects using still or video images projected (e.g., remote tracked video projection, internal illumination, or the like) onto the inner surfaces of the wall forming the spherical body, e.g., to bring a particular character to life via operations of the robotic bouncing ball. In some embodiments, the robotic bouncing ball would also be able to roll, and it would be adapted to quickly transition between these two modes of ambulation or locomotion.

More particularly, a robot is provided that is designed to have bounce-based locomotion on a support surface. The robot includes a body including an outer wall enclosing an interior space, and the outer wall includes at least a first portion formed of an elastic material such as a rubber (e.g., foam rubber), a plastic, a vinyl, or the like. The robot further includes a driver supported by a mounting element within the interior space of the body. The robot has a controller generating control signals to operate the driver to cause it to apply a first force upon the first portion of the outer wall of the body. In response to this force, the body bounces at least in a vertical direction through a range of heights above the support surface. Additionally, there may be included a “smart skin” that is compliant and includes sensors, e.g., temperature, force, and the like, to allow for richer interactions with the environment.

All in all, a pretty good match to the suggested Inventive Principles. Which is always nice. Far nicer, though is how cool this sounds to be. I want one. And I can already think of a dozen more serious applications for it. Expect big things to come from this one. This could be the next Segway. Except without the massive financial failure. Start with a toy, people, start with a toy.