Engineers at Japan’s Osaka University unveiled the Omni-Ball at the recent Innovation Japan forum. Think of it as an improved castor wheel of the kind used under shopping carts or trolleys at airports. What’s unique, though, is that the Omni-Ball can move in virtually any direction. It can move forwards and backwards, as also sideways.
The Omni-Ball is made up of two hemispheres around a central axle. These two hemispheres can move together or independently and it is this feature that gives it the omni-directional motion capability.
By fixing the Omni-Ball on a robotic vehicle, the engineers have created the Omni-Crawler. The excitement around the Omni-Crawler stems not from its obvious utility in making better shopping carts or office chairs. What is causing a lot of buzz is the potential use of the Omni-Crawler and its variants to handle tasks of growing complexity.
For instance, such crawlers can easily be equipped with Omni-Ball type structures at the end of their grips to enable them to easily pick up even soft objects without deforming them. This application can be extended to designing robotic arms that can be used in abdominal surgery, for example.
The Omni-Crawler is also energy efficient compared to robotic devices with ordinary caster wheels because it needs less energy to manoeuvre in and out of narrow spaces bounded by obstacles.
It would make parking a car between two parked vehicles a veritable breeze, without having to make all those twists and turns. Now that’s an idea: cars with suitably modified Omni-Ball wheels so that it easily gets close to the kerb when you park, the end of parallel parking blues!