Modular robotics for adaptive and self-organizing furniture

A Hardware Perspective on 3D Self-Reconfiguration and Locomotion with a Homogeneous Modular Robot, accepted in Robotics and Autonomous Systems, July 2014, Online here:

See the released Roombots EPFL Youtube video.

This project funded by the Swiss NCCR in Robotics explores the design and control of modular robots, called Roombots, to be used as building blocks for furniture that moves, self-assembles, and self-reconfigures. Modular robots are robots made of multiple simple robotic modules that can attach and detach (Wikipedia: Self-Reconfiguring Modular Robotics). Connectors between units allow the creation of arbitrary and changing structures depending on the task to be solved. Compared to “monolithic” robots, modular robots offer higher versatility and robustness against failure, as well as the possibility of self-reconfiguration. The type of scenario that we envision is a group of Roombots that autonomously connect to each other to form different types of furniture, e.g. stools, chairs, sofas and tables, depending on user requirements. This furniture will change shape over time (e.g. a stool becoming a chair, a set of chairs becoming a sofa) as well as move using actuated joints to different locations depending on the users needs. When not needed, the group of modules can create a static structure such as a wall or a box. Our dream is to provide multi-functional modules that are merged with the furniture and that lay users and engineers can combine for multiple applications.

The type of applications of such robots could be multiple: assistive furniture for the elderly or for people with a motor handicap, programmable conference rooms, interactive art, satelite or space station elements, etc. We are particularly interested in the first application, namely providing assistance to the elderly. Thanks to a SNF grant starting in September 2014, we would like to design multifunctional and assistive robotic furniture that can interact with users, help them recover from a fall, monitor their health, help them transfer between different positions (laying/sitting/standing), help them manipulate objects, and move away from or closer to the user depending on his/her needs.This work will be done in collaboration with the CHILI lab and with DomoSafety.

Our latest article in the journal of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (July 2014, but already online) presents an important milestone in the project. In particular we were able to demonstrate the following important basic functionalities of the Roombots:

  • off-grid locomotion, i.e. free locomotion in the room
  • going from off-grid to on-grid
  • on-grid locomotion, i.e. moving on a grid of connectors thanks to sequences of attachments and detachments
  • on-grid locomotion with collaboration between modules (e.g. one module helping the other to go over a corner)
  • (simple) object manipulation for constructing pieces of furniture.

See movies and pictures below.


    Copyright of pictures and videos: see the end of this page. Click the pictures to view a larger version.

    Rendering of a RB room
    Rendered vision of a table being assembled by Roombots (RB) modules, using lightweight elements and integrated RB modules.
    Roombots module Exploded view of a Roombots module
    Left: a Roombots module. The lower frontal connector is a fully equipped, active connection mechanism. The upper frontal slot is equipped with a passive connector plate. Right: rendered exploded view of a Roombots module.
    RB modules coming out of a box Table equipped with RB modules
    Box equipped with RB modules
    Top-left: Roombots modules coming out of a storage box. Bottom-left and right: illustration of plug and play capabilities of Roombots modules.
    Snake made of RB modules
    A snake-like structure made of Roombots modules.
    Assisitve Apartment - day Assistive Apartment - evening
    Kindergarten - day Kindergarten - evening
    Terrace - day Terrace - evening
    Concepts of application scenarios: (top) assistive apartment, (middle) Kindergarten, and (bottom) terrace. Images created by Augustin Mercier.
    RB chair. RB table. RB stool.
    Chair from 12 RB modules. Typical office chair for size comparison included. Table from RB modules and L-shaped passive pieces. RB stool from 8 RB modules.
    RB table and stool. RB coffee table. RB stool passive pieces.
    Miniature-table from 8 RB modules and 4 plates. Coffee table from 8 RB modules and passive pieces. Stool from 12 RB modules and passive pieces.
    Rendered examples of furniture pieces made of either Roombots modules only, or mix of Roombots modules and passive elements. These passive elements are used to enhance structural integrity, and decrease complexity and weight. The black office chair, the stool, and the lamp are included for size comparison.


    Experimental design studio

    Design studio led by Laurent Massaloux and Simon Henin from Ensci Les ateliers (École nationale supérieure de création industrielle) in collaboration with EPFL+ECAL lab.
    The studio aims to develop application scenarios using Roombots, in which the robots interact with existing objects and humans. An important part of the study was linked to creating passive accessories that could be manipulated by Roombots.
    The results of this study were presented at Futur en Seine in June 2013.


    Roombots Gardener from Anthony Loeuk on Vimeo.



    Kyrielle [ENSCI] from Matthieu Ruthy on Vimeo.

    Research overview

    Specifications of a single Roombots module
    Overall dimensions 110x110x220 mm (4.3″x4.3″x8.7″)
    Weight 1.4 kg (3.1 lb)
    Degrees of freedom 3 (continuous rotational)
    Number of connection ports 10 (active or passive)
    Active connection type 4-way symmetrical gender-less mechanical latches
    Energy source 4-cell LiPo battery, 1200 mAh. Autonomy ~1 hour
    Communication Bluetooth
    Outer motors Faulhaber 2342 012 CR
    Inner motor Faulhaber 2232 012 SR
    Outer gearboxes reduction 305:1 (custom made)
    Inner gearbox reduction 366:1 (custom made)
    Outer dofs specs 26.6 RPM (no load), 4.9 Nm (nominal)
    Inner dof specs 19.4 RPM (no load), 3.6 Nm (nominal)

    Development of the hardware modules

    The first objective of this project is to develop modular robot prototypes of Roombots suitable for the scenarios described above. Each module has its own actuated joints, controller, and battery. Mechanical connectors allow rapid and solid attachment and detachment mechanisms between modules. Different types of sensing and communication abilities are being explored.

    Control of locomotion of multi-unit Roombots

    The second objective of the project is to develop novel methods for the adaptive control of movement and locomotion of multi-unit Roombots structures. The controllers should be capable of learning efficient types of locomotion for robot structures that are unknown a-priori and that change over time. We are exploring the use of distributed coupled nonlinear oscillators combined with optimization algorithms. The challenge is to find local interaction rules that optimize the global behavior of the group of modules, and that are sufficiently rapid to be carried out online.

    Control of self-reconfiguration

    The third objective is to design self-configuration algorithms for the generation of particular multimodule structures (e.g. stools or chairs), and to transform a structure A into a structure B. A transformation is performed through a sequence of motor actions, as well as attachments and detachments. We are currently developing planning algorithms that use metrics to measure the distance between structures, as well as heuristics to search for sequences of actions to reach a specific desired structure.

    Robot-user interface

    The fourth objective is to design a user-robot interface to allow users to guide, control and teach a group of modules. We aim at interactions that are high-level and easily learnable by non-expert users (i.e. general guidance rather than programming), using state-of-the-art mobile interfaces, tactile interactions with the modules, as well as a web interface. We are currently exploring a solution that combines gesture recognition using Kinects and augmented reality on iPads.

    A. Özgür, S. Bonardi, M. Vespignani, R. Möckel, and A. Ijspeert. Natural User Interface for Roombots. RO-MAN 2014, The 23rd IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 2014. RO-MAN 2014 Best Paper Award.

    S. Bonardi, M. Vespignani, R. Möckel, J. Van den Kieboom and S. Pouya et al. Automatic Generation of Reduced CPG Control Networks for Locomotion of Arbitrary Modular Robot Structures. Robotics: Science and Systems (RSS), Berkeley, USA, 2014.

    A. Spröwitz, R. Möckel, M. Vespignani, S. Bonardi and A. Ijspeert. Roombots: A Hardware Perspective on 3D Self-Reconfiguration and Locomotion with a Homogeneous Modular Robot, accepted in Robotics and Autonomous Systems, July 2014.

    R. Möckel, Y. Perov, A. The Nguyen, M. Vespignani and S. Bonardi et al. Gait Optimization for Roombots Modular Robots – Matching Simulation and Reality. IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), Tokyo, Japan, 2013.

    M. Vespignani, E. Senft, S. Bonardi, R. Möckel and A. Ijspeert. An experimental study on the role of compliant elements on the locomotion of the self-reconfigurable modular robots Roombots. IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Tokyo, Japan, 2013.

    S. Bonardi, M. Vespignani, R. Möckel and A. Ijspeert. Collaborative Manipulation and Transport of Passive Pieces Using the Self-Reconfigurable Modular Robots Roombots. 2013 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Tokyo Big Sight, Tokyo, Japan, 2013.

    S. Bonardi, J. Blatter, J. Fink, R. Möckel and P. Jermann et al. Design and Evaluation of a Graphical iPad Application for Arranging Adaptive Furniture. 21st IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication, Paris, France, 2012.

    S. Bonardi, R. Möckel, A. Spröwitz, M. Vespignani and A. Ijspeert. Locomotion through Reconfiguration based on Motor Primitives for Roombots Self-Reconfigurable Modular Robots. 7th German Conference on Robotics – Robotik 2012, Munich, Germany, 2012.

    A. Spröwitz, A. J. Ijspeert (Dir.). Roombots: Design and Implementation of a Modular Robot for Reconfiguration and Locomotion. EPFL, Lausanne, 2010.

    A. Spröwitz, P. Laprade, S. Bonardi, M. Mayer and R. Möckel et al. Roombots-Towards Decentralized Reconfiguration with Self-Reconfiguring Modular Robotic Metamodules. The 2010 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Taipei, Taiwan, IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, 2010.

    S. Pouya, J. van den Kieboom, A. Spröwitz and A. Ijspeert. Automatic Gait Generation in Modular Robots: to Oscillate or to Rotate? that is the question. 2010 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2010), Taipei, Taiwan, IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, 2010.

    A. Spröwitz, S. Pouya, S. Bonardi, J. van den Kieboom and R. Möckel et al. Roombots: Reconfigurable Robots for Adaptive Furniture, in IEEE Computational Intelligence Magazine, special issue on “Evolutionary and developmental approaches to robotics”, vol. 5, num. 3, p. 20-32, 2010.

    A. Sproewitz, A. Billard, P. Dillenbourg and A. J. Ijspeert. Roombots-Mechanical Design of Self-Reconfiguring Modular Robots for Adaptive Furniture. 2009 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Kobe, Japan, 2009.

    M. Asadpour, M. H. Z. Ashtiani, A. Sproewitz and A. J. Ijspeert. Graph signature for self-reconfiguration planning of modules with symmetry. 2009 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, St. Louis, USA, 2009.

    A. Sproewitz, M. Asadpour, Y. Bourquin and A. J. Ijspeert. An active connection mechanism for modular self-reconfigurable robotic systems based on physical latching. 2008 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Pasadena, 2008.

    A. Sproewitz, R. Moeckel, J. Maye, M. Asadpour and A. J. Ijspeert. Locomotion in modular robots based on central pattern generators. Adaptive Motion of Animals and Machines (AMAM 2008), Cleveland, 2008.

    M. Asadpour, A. Sproewitz, A. Billard, P. Dillenbourg and A. J. Ijspeert. Graph signature for self-reconfiguration planning. International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Nice, 2008.

    Involved People

    This project is jointly done between CHILI lab and BioRob.

    Responsible assistants/PhD students: Stephane Bonardi and Massimo Vespignani.

    Past members: Rico Moeckel, Alex Sproewitz, Soha Pouya, and Masoud Asadpour.

    Active and past collaborations: DomoSafety, EPFL+ECAL lab, ENSCI – Les Ateliers, Equimodus, and LASA


    This project is funded  by the Locomorph project and by the Swiss NCCR in robotics. Preliminary studied were funded by Microsoft Research Cambridge and EPFL.

    Roombots student projects and Master theses

    If you are interested in a semester or master student project at Biorob, please contact us! We are always interested in hearing from motivated students. A comprehensive list of past student projects can be found here, a list of open projects can be found here. We are also open for suggestions.