Mechanical & Materials Engineering, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Autonomous Robots 10 (2001), pp. 57–65. Copyright © 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Used by permission.


Robots are needed to perform important field tasks such as hazardous material clean-up, nuclear site inspection, and space exploration. Unfortunately their use is not widespread due to their long development times and high costs. To make them practical, a modular design approach is proposed. Prefabricated modules are rapidly assembled to give a low-cost system for a specific task. This paper described the modular design problem for field robots and the application of a hierarchical selection process to solve this problem. Theoretical analysis and an example case study are presented. The theoretical analysis of the modular design problem revealed the large size of the search space. It showed the advantages of approaching the design on various levels. The hierarchical selection process applies physical rules to reduce the search space to a computationally feasible size and a genetic algorithm performs the final search in a greatly reduced space. This process is based on the observation that simple physically based rules can eliminate large sections of the design space to greatly simplify the search. The design process is applied to a duct inspection task. Five candidate robots were developed. Two of these robots are evaluated using detailed physical simulation. It is shown that the more obvious solution is not able to complete the task, while the non-obvious asymmetric design develop by the process is successful.