Singapore

Coming soon: Shape-shifting robots to clean hawker centres

Local scientists are developing shape-shifting robots that can sweep and vacuum hawker centres on their own, in a multimillion-dollar project.

Each robot will be made up of at least four square blocks that can disassemble and reassemble themselves into different shapes to clean different areas.

The prototype is a robot with four blocks.

A robot with four blocks can be configured into seven shapes, while one with six can be assembled into 35, said its creators from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

This will help free up workers in the sector for higher-skilled jobs, say experts.

The SUTD team received $4.7 million in August from the Government to develop the robot, named hTetro after the popular brick game Tetris, and other cleaning robots over the next two years.

The money, which comes from the National Robotics Programme, will partly be used to set up a new laboratory and to hire about 20 researchers.

The design for hTetro was conceived over three years ago. Experiments using a prototype show that the robot, which uses infra-red and bumper sensors, can reach 95 per cent of the spaces it was programmed to clean, said lead researcher Mohan Rajesh Elara from SUTD.

Dr Mohan wants to give the shape-shifting robots the ability to attach themselves to each other as well. That way, multiple robots can be assembled to sweep and vacuum larger areas more efficiently, and then disassembled to get into narrow spaces.

The earlier edition of hTetro received the Singapore Good Design Mark last year, given by the Design Business Chamber Singapore (DBCS) for good design and quality in products and services. DBCS is calling for entries for next year's round of awards till Dec 29.

Dr Mohan and his team are also developing the sTetro, a robot that can vacuum and sweep staircases autonomously, as well as the tarantula, a robot that can inspect drains for blockages.

The robots will likely hit the market in about five years, but working prototypes that can be used in field trials will be ready in two years.

SUTD plans to license the technology to local companies to commercialise the robots.

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