1960 – Cycloidal Propulsion Omnidirectional Drive – Howard Hansen (American)


CLARK'S experimental cycloidal machine. Two non-drive rear wheels counter torque.
Source: Mechanix Illustrated, April 1963.
A revolution in land vehicles may come from this new invention which can provide perfect maneuverability.
PUT a pencil at the top of a sheet of paper and start making loops—as if you were practicing a capital O, As you make the loops, draw your arm slowly down the page. Note the trail you are leaving—like a spring that's been stretched out, Actually, the curve you are drawing is called a "cycloid" and what you have just done is to trace the path of a new propulsion system that may revolutionize land vehicles,
What we're talking about is a wheeled or castered vehicle that is the ultimate in maneuverability. It can move in any horizontal direction without steering through a turning radius. In addition, it needs no brakes, transmission, axles or steering system, One control stick does the whole job.
Dubbed the Omni-Drive, it was developed by the Clark Equipment Co, Clark's first unit is an experimental battery-powered single-rotor job with two non-drive trailing wheels to counter torque. The production model—probably available next year—will have two rotors so that no torque reacting trail wheels will be necessary.
How does the Omni-Drive work?
The experimental rig consists of an under-carriage (rotor) on which three casters have been mounted 120 degrees apart, When the caster wheels are angled so that they merely revolve in a circle (see diagram at lower right) the Omni-Drive has no horizontal movement, This braking action is accomplished by centering the single control stick.
When the control stick is moved (in any direction desired) the caster wheels turn at an angle to the braking circle. Now, as the undercarriage continues to revolve, the wheels "swing out" and "push back" in cycloidal loops—just as your pencil did, The upper platform (which, of course, doesn't revolve) then moves—as your arm did when you drew the looping trail down the paper,
To visualize better the operation of this unique vehicle, keep in mind that the rotor never stops revolving while the Omni-Drive is in operation, But movement of the upper platform and operator take place only when the wheels are angled so they move outwardly away from the center as they traverse half of their circle, and inwardly toward the center as they traverse the other half of their circle,
Clark's production Omni-Drive—the two-rotor job—will be able to do much more than the experimental single-rotor rig, It will, for instance, be able to turn on its own axis, The single stick will control velocity, direction, thrust, braking and steering. Remember, this is a vehicle in which there is no torque transmission between engine and wheels. The engine—battery, gas, electric or whatever—merely turns the revolving undercarriage. Add to this the fact that this device brakes while the wheels are still turning and you begin to see its unique possibilities.
This amazing vehicle is the brainchild of Michael Chucta and Jerome Susag, Clark engineers, and Cmdr, Howard Hansen, USN, who developed the application of cycloidal propulsion to land vehicles while he was seeking to invent a maneuverable lawn mower!
Clark foresees wide applications of its Omni-Drive in materials handling vehicles. But in addition it is expected to find many uses in gantry cranes, missile handling machines and TV cameras.
—Larry Edwards


CYCLOIDAL curve made by pen on paper—a continuous looping in a straight path.


PROPOSED application in a single-rotor maneuverable machine for towing aircraft.


BRAKING is accomplished when wheels describe perfect circle and vehicle stops.


UNDERSIDE of working model. All linkages are connected to a single control stick.



Source: THE HILLSDALE DAILY NEWS, Monday, January 14, 1963
Vehicle Shows New Type Of Propulsion
DETROIT (AP) — A new type of land propulsion was to be demonstrated and discussed today at the opening of the 1963 convention of the Society of Automotive Engineers.
With it, you can drive a vehicle in any direction — even up and down, like a bird. It conceivably could some day give you an automobile you could edge into a parking place—sideways.
It is called "Cycloidal Land Propulsion" and it grew from a Navy officer's search for a power lawn mower he wouldn't have to haul and tug to mow around 40 trees on a place he'd rented in Falls Church, Va., in 1958.
It needs no brakes or clutch or transmission or axles.
. . .
The inventor is Cmdr. Howard C. Hansen, now commanding officer of the Navy's Patrol Squadron 49, and he told the engineers today how Cycloidal Land Propulsion grew from his desire for a lawn mower that would power itself circularly around those Virginia trees.
Clark Equipment Co. is adopting Hansen's propulsion method to its industrial trucks (the kind that shuttle crates and boxes hither and yon in warehouses and factories.
. . .
Michael Chucta, engineer in the advanced products section of Clark's industrial Truck Division at Battle Creek, says a vehicle utilizing such propulsion "is remarkably simple to manufacture" and foresees its use by various special job vehicles.
It isn't yet ready for your automobile, or vice versa, and may never be. Top speed of a vehicle thus propelled presently is calculated at 10 miles per hour, and it multiplies the bumps.
Cycloidal Land Propulsion utilizes wheels — one to any number, but three currently is considered the most satisfactory alignment. They are mounted (something like casters on a dresser to a circular undercarriage that is whirled around by the vehicle's power plant.
. . .
The wheels bite outward and inward from center at various points on their circular rotation to give a vehicle propulsion.
Steered to run in a true circle they halt the vehicle and act as brakes, since the tires would have to be dragged along if it were moved while the wheels were running in a true circle. It stops itself thus.
In forward movement, the wheels point outwardly as they traverse half the circle, and inwardly, toward the center, as they traverse the other half.
. . .
A Naval aviator, Hansen designed his original cycloidal or omnidirectional vehicle for control with a stick similar to that used in an airplane. The vehicle moves in whatever direction you move the stick, and the further you move the stick the faster it goes in that direction.
A vehicle using only three wheels (or one revolving cycloidal unit) requires a trailing pair of wheels attached to the rear of the vehicle to absorb torque and keep the vehicle from tending to spin in the direction the whirling wheels are spinning.
But Chucta told his fellow engineers that a vehicle using two units, each spinning in opposite directions, needs no other wheels to remain stable and translate (which means move in any direction).
Such a vehicle also can yaw, throw one end around to where the other was, or swing its front or rear to and fro.


Caption: Three men, from left to right, Jerome R. Susag, Michael Chucta, and Commander Howard C. Hansen, most responsible for its development in land vehicles showed how cycloidal propulsion worked at the Society of Automotive Engineers meeting.

Patent Information:










Publication number    US3016966 A
Publication date    16 Jan 1962
Filing date    12 Oct 1960
Inventors     Howard Clair Hansen
Original Assignee     Howard Clair Hansen

Omnidirectional drive system for land vehicles

Self-propelled land vehicles are, of course, well known. Many such vehicles are particularly intended for use as tractors or prime-movers. A very important requirement of tractor or truck vehicles is that they be as maneuverable as possible. It is also important that the application of driving power and the consequent production of tractive effort be as smooth and controlled as possible in order that maximum tractive effort may be available with an efficient utilization of power. When the tractor vehicle is to be employed for towing large aircraft or is to be used as a forklift truck, maneuverability is of prime importance.

It is a principal object of the present invention to provide an improved land vehicle having a novel omnidirectional drive system which enables the vehicle to be completely maneuverable to move or translate in any direction over the ground from a standing start.

It is another very important object of the present invention to provide a land vehicle having a novel drive system enabling solely by means of direct mechanical linkage the application of power and the production of tractive effort to be continuously variable from minimum to maximum limits of mechanical advantage.

Another object of this invention is to provide a land vehicle which may be supported on many wheels in order to achieve high load-bearing capacity and great tractive capability but in which great simplicity of construction is achieved in a novel drive system in which all wheels transmit tractive propelling power yet are free-running and un-powered in the conventional sense.

Another important object of the invention is to provide an improved land vehicle whose orientation, direction of travel, and power and speed may be either simultaneously or independently controllable by manipulation of a single control column or level.

Yet another important object of the invention is to provide a land vehicle that is completely maneuverable and controllable by the use of a single steering and power control column movable from a central position to any intended direction of movement of the vehicle and wherein the degree of movement of the control column from the central position in the intended direction controls the speed and the mechanical advantage of the tractive effort of the vehicle to increase the speed as the column is moved further.

Another object of this invention is to provide a land vehicle having a novel drive system the control lever of which may be manipulated with ease without necessity of aid from hydraulic power steering systems such as are frequently employed in conventional vehicles for the purpose of overcoming heavy control pressures.

Still another object of this invention is to provide an improved land vehicle that is completely maneuverable and highly controllable to be particularly well suited for use as an air port tractor or as a forklift truck or the like.

Yet another highly significant object of this invention is to provide a land vehicle which has no need for friction brakes in that the novel drive system of the invention inherently provides complete braking control over the vehicle.

In accordance with the invention, a vehicle main frame supporting the power source, drivers seat and controls 1s itself supported on at least one subframe that is rotatable beneath the main frame. One or more wheels supporting the vehicle are mounted on the periphery of the subframe. The power source may be connected to rotate the subframe and so long as the plane of rotation of each of the subframe wheels is maintained in tangential alignment with the rotation of the subframe, that is, so long as the axes of the wheel axles are radial with respect to the center of rotation of the subframe, the wheels will roll in a circular path on the ground and the subframe and the main frame will not translate in relation to the ground. The subframe wheels rotate on short shafts and are provided with kingpins and steering arms which are connected to a single control lever or column attached to the main frame of the vehicle. The control column is universally mounted and may be tilted in any direction and, so long as the control column bears a prependicular relationship to the plane of rotation of the subframe, the wheels are constrained to roll in a circular path on the ground as described above. When the control column is tilted in any direction away from the above-described perpendicular relationship, suitable linkage connecting the control column to the steering arms of the subframe wheesl causes the rotation of the subframe to vary the steering angles of the subframe Wheels; in sinusoidal fashion, thereby causing the subframe and the main frame to translate with respect to the ground. The interconnecting linkage is such as to cause the period of the sinusoidal variation of the steering angle of each wheel to be equal to the period of one revolution of the subframe, and such as to cause the phase-relationship between the rotation of the subframe and the steering angle variations to be determined by the direction in which the control column is tilted, and such as to cause the magnitude of the steering angle variations to be determined by the degree to which the control column is tilted. The arrangement is such, therefore, that the direction of movement of the vehicle is determined by the direction in which the control column is tilted, while the speed of the vehicle movement and, inversely, the mechanical advantage of the tractive effort are determined by the degree to which the control column is tilted. Thus complete maneuverability and controllability of the land vehicle are obtained with the use of a single control column. One or more trailing wheels may be fixed to the vehicle main frame to establish a heading for the main frame and to prevent contrarotation of the vehicle main frame, or a second subframe may be utilized to provide a means for controlling the heading of the main frame of the vehicle relative to the direction of movement of the vehicle over the ground.

Similar Drives used in Robotics:

Trochoid Drive by Osaka University – See Patent US8757316.

Publication date    24 Jun 2014
Filing date    7 Jun 2011

See other early Walking Wheels at the bottom here.
See other early Mobile Robots here.

1983 – “Kludge” Omnidirectional Mobile Robot – John M. Holland (American)

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1983 – "Kludge" Omnidirectional Mobile Robot by John M. Holland.

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Kludge with legs contracted.


Kludge at a 1984 exhibition.


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John M. Holland.

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The focus in this post is on the unique mobility base, and not on its navigation and sensor qualities.

Patent Information:

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Publication number    US4573548 A

Publication date    4 Mar 1986
Filing date    23 Jul 1983
Priority date    23 Jul 1983
Inventors    John M. Holland
Original Assignee    Cybermation, Inc.
Mobile base for robots and the like
US 4573548 A
A mobile base for robots or other devices requiring a transport mechanism is disclosed incorporating a plurality of wheels which are simultaneously driven and steered by separate drive sources so as to allow the mobile base to change direction without rotation of the mobile base. In an additional embodiment, each wheel is located on an extensible leg assembly which can be rotated to project outwardly from the mobile base and thereby provide additional stability to the base. This adaptive, retractable leg synchro-drive mobile base uses a third drive source to perform the extension and retraction of the leg assemblies and provides that the wheels maintain their orientation while extension or retraction occurs while the mobile base is in translation and that the wheel orientation returns to its previous state if retraction or extension occurs while the base is not in translation.

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Source: Basic Robotic Concepts, John M. Holland, 1983.

Synchro Drive (Author)
The synchro drive system shown in Fig. 3-18 features three or more wheels (in this case four) that are mechanically synchronized to each other for both steering and power. Synchronization can be accomplished by the use of chains (as shown), or by gears. Each wheeled "foot" assembly contains a 90° miter gear arrangement as shown in Fig. 3-19. The housing of the foot is driven by the steering chain, while the inner shaft is connected to the drive chain. The

Fig. 3-18. Synchro-drive using chain coupling.

Fig. 3-19. Steering action of the synchro-drive foot assembly.
system offers some interesting characteristics when it is driven. Since the wheels steer together, the base does not change its rotational orientation when the robot executes a turn. For this reason, the upper torso of the robot (which contains the vision and ranging systems) is pivoted and mechanically linked to the steering chain. By driving the steering chain with a stepper motor (and gear reducer) the robot can execute very precisely controlled turns.
Notice that the miter gear (Fig. 3-19) must be on the opposite side of the power shaft from the wheel. This is because of the interplay between steering and wheel drive. If the power chain is stationary (the robot is not moving), and the steering chain causes the foot to execute one complete revolution, the wheel power shaft will experience the equivalent effect of one revolution in the opposite direction. With a miter gear having a ratio of 1:1 and located as shown, the wheel axle will revolve once in such a way that the wheel rolls around an arc as shown in the figure. This action is much easier on treated
surfaces than having the wheel pivot about its center line. With the 1:1 ratio, the robot will not wobble as the turn is executed, if the wheel radius (r) is equal to pivot radius (r'). Unfortunately, this may mean that in the inboard rotational position (the right-most wheel in Fig. 3-18A) is displaced sufficiently under the robot to cause a deterioration of the zone of stability. If the pivot radius (r') is shortened, the robot will appear to "belly dance" as the steering is operated. If this is objectionable, the miter gear can be selected to have a ratio equal to the ratio of the circumferences of the two circles associated with r and r'. This of course means that it will be the ratio of the two radiuses.
The system has some attractive qualities, but it is not overly stable because it cannot adapt to steep terrain. For robots operating on flat surfaces, it is a good alternative.
•    Efficiency: Fair to good
•    Simplicity of Control: Excellent
•    Traction: Good
•    Maneuverability: Excellent
•    Navigation: Excellent
•    Stability: Fair to poor depending on the number of wheels
•    Adaptability: None
•    Destructiveness: Excellent
•    Climbing: Poor
•    Maintenance: Fair to good
•    Cost: Low to moderate
Adaptive Synchro Drive with Retractable Leg Assemblies
The adaptive synchro drive represents a compromise between the complexity of a walking robot, and the simplicity (and poor stability) of the synchro drive. The requirement that led to this design was to provide a robot that could negotiate relatively steer ramps, and that could climb over mild curbs without falling over. The solution was to add a degree of adaptability to the synchro drive. This was to be accomplished in the simplest possible manner, and the result is shown in Figs. 3-20, 3-21, and 3-22.
The adaptive synchro drive has the same basic power and steering chain arrangements in the base as did the original system, except that at the positions where the wheels were, there are now pivoted

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Fig. 3-20. Synchro-drive leg assembly.
leg assemblies. A set of two chains in each leg transmits the drive and steering control to the same type "foot" assembly used in the synchro drive. Fixed to each leg at the pivot point is a chain sprocket connected to a third stepping motor and gear box arrangement. The power and steering shafts run concentrically through this sprocket into the leg. This arrangement allows the legs to rotate about their pivots (Fig. 3-23), thus changing the effective area of the base. As the legs rotate, the linkages are such that the wheels continue steering in the original direction. Since there is no capability of steering the wheels individually, they cannot be caused to "toe in" during collapsing. For this reason, a certain amount of rolling motion is required to allow this action to take place without damaging the surface on which the robot is running. To accomplish this, the action of the retraction (collapse) motor can be locked to the main drive motor. If the legs must be retracted in a short distance, the robot may have to roll forward and backward once or twice. Alternatively, it can execute a continuous turn with the drive motor turned off. Another disadvantage to this system is that the base orientation cannot be controlled. Thus if the robot approaches a load with the legs extended, it must make do with whatever the orientation of the legs might be. A modification to the steering chain may be added to overcome this problem.

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Fig. 3-21. Diagram of a synchro-drive with retractable leg assemblies.
This modification would consist of three movable idlers taking up chain slack between the wheels. In the normal position of these idlers, the wheels would all steer in the same direction. In the other idler position the wheels would all steer tangentially and the robot base could pivot on its own axis. Unfortunately, this reduces the simplicity and economy of the design.
Like the synchro drive, this carriage can steer through 360 degrees without moving. This eliminates the need for backing up. There are several advantages to avoiding this maneuver, including the elimination of rear facing obstacle detection systems and the elimination of polarity reversing circuitry on the main power motor. This second factor improves efficiency since solid-state polarity reversing circuitry always induces some power loss.
This whole arrangement is of course an elaborate compromise, but it was one that satisfied our needs. The lack of independent wheel steering control was traded off for the simplicity of control and economy of having only one drive and one steering motor. The two main sacrifices that had to be made were in the area of efficiency and maintenance.

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Fig. 3-22. Photograph of a synchro-drive with retractable leg assemblies (battery removed from foreground).
My experimental version of this system (named "Kludge") has been very successful, and the efficiency is better than expected. With 8-inch diameter tires and its legs extended, Kludge can climb over 4 X 4-inch timbers (actually 3.5 X 3.5 inches). My totally unbiased assessment of this approach is:
•    Efficiency: Fair to good
•    Simplicity of Control: Excellent
•    Traction: Good
•    Maneuverability: Excellent
•    Navigation: Excellent
•    Stability: Fair with legs retracted, excellent with them extended
•    Adaptability: Adaptable to ramps and small single steps
•    Destructiveness: Excellent with precautions mentioned above
•    Climbing: Poor
•    Maintenance: Fair (I hope)
•    Cost: Moderate

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Fig. 3-23. Rotational collapsing and the change of the zone of stability.

….I would also like to thank Mr. Robert Pharr of Roanoke, Virginia, whose mechanical expertise brought the mobile robot "Kludge" from a concept to a reality. Thanks must also go to my technician, Mr. William Grady Spiegel, for his support in breadboarding many of the circuits associated with Kludge and other systems discussed in this book…

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The Old Robots conveniently has a pdf of this article.

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Source: ROBOTICS AGE January 1985 [edited]
John M. Holland
Cybermation, Inc.
When human beings attempt to solve a problem, they tend to match successful past solutions to the new situation. While this problem solving technique is extremely helpful in day-to-day situations, it can be misleading when we attempt to solve unique new problems. The trouble is that this whole conceptual process is so unconscious that we are unaware of the assumptions we make along the way. The problem of robot mobility is an excellent example.
When we start thinking about robot mobility systems, we immediately catalog the solutions to mobility problems in other fields. Most present-day mobile robots use a version of the mobility system originally designed for either a tricycle, a wheelchair, an automobile, a tank, an all-terrain vehicle, a wagon, or a combination of these. In some cases, the designer has turned to nature for inspiration and the result may resemble a spider or even an elephant.
Many mobile robots are well adapted to the problems they are designed to solve. For example, robots like the Ohio State University (OSU) Hexapod or the Odetics Odex I walker are required for certain rough-terrain applications. In fact, an article by R. B. McGhee, et. al. (see references) shows that walking robots may actually be more efficient than wheels or treads on soft surfaces. Still, it is very important to realize the original problem for which the technique was developed.
Attempting to apply existing vehicle designs to robots quickly points out the difference between the intelligence and sensory capabilities of a robot "driver" and a human operator. The robot driver will be a relatively stupid, nearly blind computer. Expecting a robot driver to perform the classical parallel parking maneuver for an automobile is optimistic in the extreme.Solutions based on animal models have an additional problem since animals are constructed from different materials than those available for the robot. For example, muscle tissue provides both an excellent lightweight servomechanism, and compliant springiness that can be used to store and recover kinetic energy.
Before designing a robot mobility system, we must determine the robot's intended capabilities and make several trade-offs for cost vs. performance.
The first major trade-off is between walking and rolling. While a walking robot can go almost anywhere, it will tend to be very complex mechanically, difficult to control, expensive to build, slow, and (on finished surfaces) relatively inefficient. Some of these difficulties can be eliminated, but only at the expense of making others worse. Depending on the applications, the ability to climb stairs, rubble, and undefined obstacles, may outweigh all other considerations. On the other hand, it may be more economical to replace stairs in the robot's environment with ramps, thus making a rolling robot acceptable.
There are always restrictions on the robot as well. These restrictions include the width and height clearance available, the maximum weight, the damage that it can be permitted to inflict on its running surface, etc.

As the robot design progresses, it is sometimes necessary to back up and modify or subdivide the original performance envelope. For example, two models of the robot may become necessary to fulfill all requirements, or perhaps an ability may be dropped rather than modify the robot's operating environment.
The example used in Table 1 evaluates applications we had in mind for our Cybermation robots and is an approximate evaluation of our first prototype. These robots would be expected to perform teleoperated and autonomous functions in demanding industrial applications, including explosives factories, clean-rooms, and nuclear reactor buildings. Thus, as reflected in the table, initial cost is not as important as the maintenance costs and reliability. The ability to climb steps was dropped in favor of requiring ramps and lifts.

The base consists of three wheel assemblies located on retractable legs. We call this the Synchro-drive since a set of chains is used to synchronously steer and drive all three wheels. The robot has three sets of motors, gear boxes, and chains; one for driving the wheels, one for retracting and extending the legs, and one for steering the wheels. Additionally, the steering chain is connected to a spine shaft running up through the center of the base. The robot's turret is mounted on a flange attached to this shaft, and rotates with the shaft in such a way that the turret always points in the same direction as the wheels.
This configuration gives the Synchro-drive some interesting capabilities. For example, the base does not rotate as the robot executes a turn. Not only does this save energy (by not requiring rotational acceleration and deceleration of the base), but it also allows the robot to maintain a sense of direction, by measuring the angle of the turret and base. One of the greatest advantages of the Synchro-drive is that steering and drive commands represent a pure polar coordinate reference system. This greatly simplifies navigation.
Furthermore, since the Synchro-drive has a true zero turning radius, it does not need reverse. This means that rear-facing sensors, and two (expensive) quadrants of the drive motor control can be eliminated.

Finally, the wheel assembly is designed to allow turns without translation. This was accomplished by off-setting the wheel from the center of the steering axis and placing its driving gear in such a way as to impart a rolling action during steering. The robot can thus turn in place, without damaging carpets, tile, or wood floors.


Table 2. Evaluation table for the Synchro-drive robot with concentric shafts and fixed legs.

The Synchro-drive approach evolved after many (informal) cycles through the evaluation process just described, and yet the approach still had short-comings at the point shown in Table 1.
The prototype (nicknamed Kludge) showed that the basic mode of movement was largely superior to other modes being considered, but the chains were a real problem. First, chains don't like to operate in a horizontal plane, and at least 180 degrees of engagement or purchase is required on each sprocket. This meant that many idlers had to be installed, which lowered efficiency and increased costs. Secondly, the chains stretch over time and must be adjusted. Additionally, the chains took up a lot of room and forced the robot's center of gravity to be higher than necessary. As a general rule, chains are noisy and dirty by nature. Finally, the wheels had to be realigned each time the chains were adjusted or tightened.
Each of these problems could be lessened by one measure or another, but the approach kept coming up short of our goals.
The problem then became how to build a robot that had all the good qualities of Kludge but was clean, reliable, easily assembled and repaired, had a lower center of gravity, and required no realignment. It wouldn't hurt if the new approach was (in the jargon of the patent office) clearly novel as well. This would allow us to obtain patent protection for the engineering investment.
The solution was to use a unique combination of concentric shafts and bevel gears. With this configuration, the moving parts could be enclosed inside hollow tubes comprising the robot frame members. This eliminated pollution, and greatly reduced maintenance. Accurately keyed gears kept the steering in alignment at all times.
The second production prototype (K2A) contains only a handful of different types of bearings and gears that are used repeatedly throughout the design. Furthermore, the new approach allows the batteries, drive motor and gear box to be slung between the leg members, lowering the center of gravity. By doing this, and by extending the fixed legs slightly beyond the edge of the base, the robot is about 80 percent as stable as the first Kludge prototype with its legs fully extended, and about 160 percent as stable as the first prototype with its legs retracted. Although an extensible-leg version using concentric shafts is planned, the cost savings on the current model outweigh the loss of high-end stability, at least for most current applications.
The result of these improvements is shown in Table 2. Notice that for the relatively small loss of stability, the savings in other areas are substantial. As an additional advantage, the maneuver required for extending and retracting the legs was eliminated.
The emergence of mobile robots as an important economic reality will require the rethinking of the basic precepts of mobility. These new mechanical "beasties" will encompass an enormous variety of forms, each governed by the niche it is intended to fill. Exactly as in nature, those robots that best fill the requirements of their niche will flourish and evolve, and those that are hastily or ill-conceived will become extinct.
We have used the Cybermation Synchro-drive as an example, but the basic process of fitting a solution to the problem can be used in the development of any robotic system.
McGhee, R.B., KW. Olson, and R. L. Briggs "Electronic Coordination of Joint Motions for a Terrain Adaptive Robot." Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc. Warrendale, PA.
Raibert, M. H., et al. "Dynamically Stable Legged Locomotion." The Robot Institute, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA. September 1981.
Holland, J. M., Basic Robotic Concepts. Howard W. Sams Publishing Co, 1983.

"Kludge" was a prototype. It evolved into the successful K2A then the K3A, subject to another post.

The company Cybermation became Cybermotion, and now KineLogic.

See other early Humanoid Robots here.
See other early Mobile Robots here.

1984 – FETAL I Omnidirectional Robot – William H. T. La (Vietnamese/American)



FETAL I had its major public appearance at the International Personal Robots Congress (IPRC) held in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1984.

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Fetal I, constructed by Bill La, is a three-wheeled vehicle capable of moving in any direction, A later prototype, Fetal II [no picture available], was presented a Golden Droid award at the 1984 IPRC.



FETAL I at the IPRC 1984. Images by Richard Moyle via David Buckley's Historic Robots.


IPRC-Robotics Age Aug 1984.
Sunday was the day everyone had been waiting for, the awards brunch, Nelson Winkless, the official historian for IPRC, acted as master of ceremonies. After his opening remarks and thanks to the many behind-the-scenes personnel, Nels got down to the most important part of the program, the presentation of the Golden Droid awards.
The Golden Droid awards were presented in three categories: the most entertaining going to Bruce Taylor for his robot Henry; the most useful being presented to Reza Falamak and his EZ Mower Robot; and the open award going to Bill H. T. La for his Fetal II [Ed. not shown.]. After the picture-taking and congratulations were over, it was back to the exhibition hall for the final afternoon of the show, Although Sunday's attendance was somewhat less than the two previous days, the enthusiasm was still evident.


Dr. Bill La with his wife.

Venture – Volume 6, Part 2 – Page 88

William H. T. La, 33, was a Vietnamese exchange student and maker of toys when he invented the Alexis while playing with an erector set. He found that by placing castings on three wheels, the wheels could move in any direction.


Patent information:

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Source: Robotics Age, Feb 1984.





Publication number    US4237990 A
Application number    US 06/000,570
Publication date    9 Dec 1980
Filing date    2 Jan 1979
Inventors    Hau T. La
Original Assignee    Hau T

Omnidirectional vehicle
US 4237990 A
A wheeled vehicle provided with three individually driven wheels rotatable on horizontal axes. The wheels are disposed at the corners of a triangle. The periphery of each wheel is defined by a plurality of rollers rotatable on respective axes which are each at an angle to the axis of the respective wheel. The axes of three rollers, one for each wheel, when each such roller is in its lowermost position, form a triangle. Each roller axis may be at right angles or perpendicular to, or at 45 degrees to, or at some other acute angle to the respective wheel axis, and the triangle may be an equilateral triangle in a typical embodiment of the invention.
According to a preferred embodiment of the invention, no two of the wheel axes are aligned or parallel to each other. In a typical construction, the wheels are at the corners of an equilateral triangle and the wheel axes intersect at the center of this triangle. The vehicle may be driven over a surface, or it may be inverted and an object with a surface engaged on the wheel rollers may be moved with respect to the stationary "vehicle". Controls for motors driving the wheels of the vehicle are provided to produce rectilinear movement, rotational movement or curvilinear movement of the vehicle over the surface.

Alexis, the Omnidirectional Wheelchair.

omni-c2 001-x640

An earlier prototype of the omnidirectional wheelchair.

Source: Basic Robotic Concepts, John M. Holland, 1983
A version of this drive was developed by the Veterans Administration as a transport system for paraplegic persons (Fig. 3-28). This system powers only the axial motion of each wheel, allowing the smaller outer wheels to roll freely. The effect is that these rollers act as force translators. This effect can be seen for the case of forward drive shown in Fig. 3-29B. Notice that only the two rear wheels are powered for this maneuver and that their outward force vectors cancel. This scheme greatly reduces the complexity of the carriage, but some loss of traction will occur. The small diameter of the rollers will also cause difficulty on surfaces that are not perfectly smooth.
•    Efficiency: Good
•    Simplicity of Control: Excellent
•    Traction: Good to fair (for single-axis drive)
•    Maneuverability: Excellent
•    Navigation: Excellent to fair (for single-axis drive)
•    Stability: Fair to good depending on mounting
•    Adaptability: None
•    Destructiveness: Excellent
•    Climbing: Poor
•    Maintenance: Poor to good (for single-axis drive)
•    Cost: Moderate (in production) to good (for single-axis drive)

omni-c3 001-x640


Dr. William H. T. La is the inventor of the Alexis, at the V.A. Institute in Palo Alto. The Alexis is a nonconventional "smart" wheelchair that uses a system known as "metamotion", employing three independently motor-driven nonparallel wheels linked by an on-board computer. This feature, patented by Dr. La in 1980, allows the Alexis to move directly to any point on the horizontal plane by the rider's manipulation of a joy stick that sends an electronic signal to the computer that controls the directions of the three wheels. The Alexis also has a control feature that enables a rider unable to manipulate the joy stick to operate the Alexis by head motion. As a result, any rider of the Alexis, regardless of disability level, could make it "turn on a dime" and maneuver it in cramped spaces.

The world's most futuristic wheelchair was designed and patented by Stanford University in 1982. It's omni-directional wheels made it truly revolutionary for its time. It was named in honor of Kim Alexis.

The Evening Independent – Sep 24. 1984  
'Alexis' the wheelchair called a significant step
As technology advances, entrepreneurs put it to use—quite often, to the advantage of victims of disease and infirmity, On this page, the focus is on a new computer assisted "sports car" wheelchair.
Knight-Ridder Newspapers
SAN JOSE, Calif, — Robert Smith slides into the $1,300 bucket seat of his sleek, computer-assisted wheelchair, fingers the control panel at his left hand and the joystick in his right, then zips off for a quick spin around a local shopping center,
At a top speed of 12 mph, the machine isn't exactly primed for the Daytona 500, But "Alexis," as Smith has dubbed this roadster-like tricycle for the disabled, which he helped design, enjoys advantages unknown to stock car racers.
At the shopping center, those advantages quickly proved themselves, Smith didn't swerve when shoppers stepped in his path because Alexis, unlike conventional wheelchairs, can move sideways as well as forward and backward.
The vehicle is part ballerina, too — it can pirouette within its own footprint, whereas ordinary wheelchairs have a turning radius of about one yard. This gives Alexis the kind of maneuverability that is critical in tight spaces, such as between racks of clothing in apparel stores or between a desk and wall at the office.
And belying the notion that wheelchairs will always be drab, pitiful contraptions, Alexis got some admiring glances as it sidestepped and twirled for the curious shoppers, A list of the world's 10 sexiest machines, Smith knows, wouldn't include present-day wheelchairs — an image he hopes Alexis will shatter so that, eventually, paraplegics and others can pride themselves on what may be their only means of powered transportation.
Indeed, Smith was thinking of Kim Alexis when he christened the wheelchair. She's the stunning blonde who last year modeled a red bathing suit in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition.
Smith, 24, who graduated from Stanford University in 1982 with a master's degree in mechanical engineering, and four others designed and built the futuristic wheelchair over a six-month period at the Veterans Administration Rehabilitation Research and Development Center in nearby Palo Alto, Tim Prentice, a high school student at the time, provided rough sketches of what was to become Alexis.
Smith's goal was to innovate, to build a machine that would include a Zilog Z-80A microcomputer to adjust the speed of the three independently powered wheels so the vehicle would move in precise directions at precise speeds. The microcomputer performs this command-and-control loop 20 times a second.
"It's almost as if you were going to build a sports car," Smith said of his design approach. "You can either soup up a Chevy Nova or start with a clean sheet of paper and design a Corvette."
Each wheel consists of eight natural-rubber rollers instead of treads, allowing the wheelchair to travel in all directions without any drag. The Boeing Co, owns the patent on this design for its shop carts.
The wheels — two in front and one in back —and motors are concealed by rounded fiberglass covers adorned with a red racing stripe. Adding to this airstreamed, classy look is the removable bucket seat manufactured by Recaro, the type commonly found in sports and racing cars.
"Actually, I'm kind of tired of that designs" Smith confided, "It looks like a vacuum cleaner,"
Perhaps, but Alexis doesn't sound like one. Its advanced electronics create very little noise. Moreover, the microcomputer won't let Alexis travel so fast that it tips over, and because all three motors are identical, unlike conventional models with left and right motors, parts are interchangeable.
That's important because wheelchair manufacturers don't stock many spare parts.
International Texas Industries of San Antonio has purchased the patent on Alexis and will manufacture it in Wichita, Kan. The first delivery is due Dec, 31. Initially, 500 of the wheelchairs will be test marketed only in the San Francisco area, so engineers here will be able to easily spot and correct any glitches.
The standard model will sell for $4,000 to $5,000, Smith estimates. Wheelchairs currently on the market, which is dominated by a company called Everest & Jennings, vary from $4,000 to $15,000, depending on the number and type of accessories the buyer needs.
Experts in and out of the VA agree that Alexis marks a significant step in wheelchair technology.
"This is the single most important contribution to mobility of the disabled since electric-powered wheelchairs were introduced," said Larry Leifer, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University and director of the VA's research and development center.
"Most offices are inaccessible to wheelchairs. We expect Alexis to give (disabled) people a wider choice of places to live — without modifying that house, which is very expensive — and we expect it to give them broader employment opportunities."
David McGowan, executive director of the Adult Independence Development Center in Santo Clara, agreed.
"I'd say it's a rapid evolution," McGowan said. "It would be a significant change.
"Although federal law mandates that new projects be accessible to the disabled, we live in a reality where most buildings are not accessible. Doorways and hallways are not wide enough, for example. That would make (wheelchair) maneuverability critical."
The VA, according to McGowan, is at the forefront of such innovations because of the financial resources available to it.
As with any new mechanism, development of the Alexis prototype has fostered its share of headaches. Today, the wheelchair — itself disabled — sits in Smith's cramped laboratory near the VA Medical Center waiting for a new joystick. The original throttle was much too stiff for the kind of fingertip control for which Smith is striving.
In addition, the two fiberglass and nylon chassis plates began showing immediate signs of wear, forcing a switch to pure fiberglass to ensure durability while still offering a smooth ride. Another problem was getting parts: Smith often found that, because of the hospital environment, drugs and toilet paper seemed higher on the VA's list of items to be ordered.
The test pilot who puts Alexis through its' paces is Peter Axelson, 27, another mechanical engineer at the research and development center. Axelson lost the use of his legs eight years ago when he fell 180 feet while learning to rock climb as an Air Force cadet.
In subsequent years, he founded Beneficial Designs of Santa Cruz where he designed the sit ski, similar to sled.
"The initial sense of being able to move in any direction in Alexis is incredible," he said. "That's the most profound feeling, I believe that most people would get into Alexis and not try to move in any direction but backward and forward because moving sideways is so unusual."
The wheelchair negotiates tight indoor spaces better than it does curbs, hills and other outdoor obstacles. Yet, all devices have their limits, and Alexis is no exception, Axelson said.
"It's like the difference between a long distance runner and a dancer, Alexis is agile."

Patent information:




Publication number    US4715460 A
Publication type    Grant
Application number    US 06/673,965
Publication date    29 Dec 1987
Filing date    20 Nov 1984
Also published as    EP0201592A1, WO1986003132A1
Inventors    Robert E. Smith
Original Assignee    International Texas Industries, Inc.
Omnidirectional vehicle base
US 4715460 A
An omnidirectional wheelchair base 7 includes upper 10 and lower 20 flexible base plates held in spaced-apart alignment by a pair of front supports 14 and 16 and a rear support 18. A pair of front wheels 22 and 26 are provided, each mounted on the front supports 14 and 16, respectively, and each having an axis of rotation wherein the angle between the axes of rotations of each of the front wheels is less than 180°. A rear wheel is mounted on the rear support and has an axis of rotation less than 180° from each of the front wheels.

Publication number    WO1986003132 A1
Publication type    Application
Application number    PCT/US1985/002281
Publication date    5 Jun 1986
Filing date    19 Nov 1985
Also published as    EP0201592A1, US4715460
Inventors    Robert E Smith
Applicant    Int Texas Ind Inc

Alexis Wheelchair – Last word:
Alexis is an innovative electric wheelchair using a "wheels within wheels" design. It is unique in that it can turn in its own footprint and move sideways. The Rehab R&D Center licensed Intex Industries to make Alexis commercially available in 1987, and Intex made 40 pre-production units for field trials in the San Antonio area. During subsequent redesign efforts, the company filed for bankruptcy, preventing further commercialization at the time.

From the video blurb: Unfortunately, Alexis never made it to market because Jon King, Intex CEO, embezzled millions of investment capital. He was later convicted and spent 10 years in federal prison for his crime.

Mobile Vocational Assistant Robot (MoVAR): 1983-1988.
Overview of project

The MoVAR project used a unique, patented, 3-wheeled omni-directional base with a PUMA-250 arm mounted on it. It was desk-high and designed to go through interior doorways (see Figure 2). All electronics and power components for the motors and sensors were mounted in the mobile base. A telemetry link to a console received commands and sent position and status information. The mobile base had a bumper-mounted touch sensor system to provide autonomy in the face of obstructions, a wrist-mounted force sensor and gripper-mounted proximity sensors to assist in manipulation, and a camera system to display the robot's activities and surroundings to the user at the console. The robot console had three monitors: graphic robot motion planning, robot status, and camera view. It had keyboard, voice, and head-motion inputs for command and cursor control, and voice output.

Omni-directional mobile robot called MoVAR.

Figure 2: MoVAR robot base with instrumented bumpers and joystick; the PUMA-250 carries a camera for remote viewing, a six-axis force sensor and gripper with finger pad-mounted proximity sensors. A wireless digital link allows the mobile base computer to communicate with the user console. A later phase of this project added instructable natural language input capability, coupled to an internal world model, so that typed-in commands such as, "move to a position in front of the desk, and move west when the bumpers are hit" could be executed. Path planning was not a targeted research area for this project due to the many other research groups active in this domain.

This project was stopped in 1988 when VA funding was terminated. The hardware and software were subsequently transferred to the Intelligent Mechanisms Group at the NASA Ames Research Center (Mountain View, CA) for use in the development of real-time controllers and stereo-based user interfaces for semi-autonomous planetary rovers.

See other early Humanoid Robots here.
See other early Mobile Robots here.

1983 – MARVIN Robot – David Gossman et al (American)


1983 – "MARVIN" the Robot by David Gossman et al. (Image source: Robot Tech Talk, 1985 by Ed  Radlauer.)


MARVIN MARK I – "Mobile Anthropomorphic Robot VINtage high tech robot"

Marvin Mark I moves around the room, talks with a synthesized voice using his 500-word vocabulary, moves his head, has sonar ranging on board, and has two 6-axis arms that can be programmed to work simultaneously. Marvin is a somewhat anthropomorphic personal robot that stands approx 4 foot 2 inches tall and has two six-axis arms, an on-board Motorola 68000 processor and a standard disk drive. A total of 15 axes of movement can be operated simultaneously under computer control.


 Text by bill_r:

     "Marvin" appeared on the scene somewhere around 1982 or 1983.  He featured the new (at that time) 68000 processor, and was actually very sophisticated, both mechanically and electronically.  The articulation and strength of the arms and hands were particularly impressive.  At that time, I was working for a small engineering company (Helman Engineering) prior to their relocation to South Carolina, helping to design and built fiber-composite tensioning systems for sale to the Air Force and aerospace industries.  At one time, we were asked to supply a bid on automated traffic control systems for highway construction sites.   (Apparently, the accident rate is fairly high, and holding a sign for hours has to be the world's most boring job.)  We kicked around some requirements, and decided that such a device should be self-contained, durable, capable of communicating with both the foreman and other robots on the job via radio, and equipped with visual warning devices for motorists as well as audible warnings for the road crew, should a car not slow down or otherwise pose a threat.  "Marvin" had recently come to my attention, and he looked like he might be a good place to start, so my boss (coincidentally also named Marvin) and I hopped in his red-white-and-blue stunt plane (he used to be a stunt pilot in an aerial circus, but that's another story altogether) and hopped over to Iowa to visit "Marvin's" home.  The pictures above were taken at the small factory.  The image of a robot assembly line (ala "Short Circuit" or "The Terminator") sticks in my head to this day.  I remember seeing tables holding row after row of arms, hands, heads, wheels, etc., ready to be assembled.  I don't know what happened to "Marvin" and his brothers, because I don't think I've ever seen one, or even a picture of one, outside those I saw at the factory that day.  The advertisement is one of a short series run in "Robotics Age" magazine.  (In case you were wondering, the traffic-control robot fell through; it seems it's cheaper to pay a human being to lean on a shovel all day…)

        Update 9/10/98:  Being curious if there were actually any "Marvins" around that I might adopt, I did some research.  The company is long gone, having gone bankrupt in 1990 due to the fickle fortunes of the robotics market.   They apparently sold a number of robots of varying designs before they vanished, however.  By speaking to the mayor of the town where the company once existed, I was able to make contact with two of the three people who designed and built "Marvin", who are still living in the area, but pursuing totally different occupations.  The 3rd person apparently moved to Minneapolis and later passed away.   I'd still like to give a "Marvin" a home, so if you know of any that are available, let me know!   




Above images also from bill_r.




MARVIN specification from The Personal Robot Book, Texe Marrs, 1985.

Most of the advertisements shown below are from various issues of Robotics Age journal. Some are reproduced by convenience from The Old Robots.




marvin-back-ra-apr84 001-x640


Press photo of Marvin in Boston. Date and people unknown.


Poor image From IEEE's Spectrum, May 1985.


MARVIN at the IPRC 1984. Image by Richard Moyle via David Buckley's Historic Robots.

Source: The Daily Reporter – Sep 20, 1984

Branstad meets Melvin robot
By Judy Daubenmler, Iowa News Service
DES. MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad got a helping "hand" with one of his office chores Tuesday and seemed pleased that the "hand" wasn't a human's.
The governor signed a proclamation declaring Sept, 30-Oct. 6 "Iowa High Tech Week" and in the spirit of the week, an Iowa-made robot handed the governor the document for his signature.
The robot, a 4-foot-2-inch, 150-pound electronic bundle called Marvin, told the governor, "I am pleased to be here" as he raised his arm and presented Branstad with the proclamation.
"I congratulate you humans on a great idea … and for choosing me to help you. From me and my pals in Iowa industry, thank you. Thank you, Governor Branstad. What a great week," said Marvin,
Calling it a "little different to be talking to robots," Branstad thanked the blue, pudgy, human-shaped machine and then tugged gently to loosen Marvin's
grip on the proclamation.
"Is he going to let go of it?" asked a skeptical Branstad.
A well-trained Marvin relaxed his grippers, surrendered the paper to the governor and then lowered his arm.
The little ceremony in Branstad's formal office was a sort of Iowa debut for Marvin, but his "father" says the little tyke may soon go on to bigger and better things.
David Gossman, chief executive officer of Iowa Precision Robotics, Ltd., in Melvin, said Marvin clones may show up in movies, television commercials and serials, industry and schools.
"Marvin was originally designed and developed to be an educational tool, a training aid, primarily at post-secondary institutions, to facilitate the training of individuals in programming robots for industry and for students on the engineering side of the card," he said,
Marvin's insides are much like the insides of industrial robots, but he sells for around $6,000 instead of $30,000 to $150,000 as industrial robots do, explained Gossman. That makes robotics courses affordable for post-secondary schools, he said,
Marvin contains a computer eight times more powerful than a common personal computer, He can be programmed with the help of a computer terminal that plugs into his back and a computer language the firm developed just for him.
Marvin has a large vocabulary, although Gossman admits his speech is sometimes hard to understand the first time it's heard. More understandable speech synthesizers could have been used but they had a limited vocabulary, he explained,
Marvin's two arms have six movable joints and can lift objects weighing up to five pounds.
He has wheels instead of feet and a sonar system that lets him find his way around objects by bouncing sound off them,
Gossman came up with the idea of manufacturing Marvin about two years ago when he saw that schools could use a sophisticated, yet cheap, tool to teach robotics.
Gossman said he decided to make Marvin have a human shape only because it "tends to attract attention" and not because there is any real need for him to look human-like,
Formerly with the Stylecraft firm in Milford, Gossman incorporated Iowa Precision Robotics in April 1983, So far, $250,000 has been spent in developing Marvin,
The firm now employs 10 people and will expand to 20 to 25 within six months.
Marvin is the demonstration robot, and the first production models will be put together in late September or early October,
Orders so far have come from Westinghouse, which plans to use Marvin as a tour guide, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Hollywood,
"Six Marvins have been purchased by a prop supplier in Hollywood and we've been contacted by quite a number of people wanting to use the robot in television commercials, Conversations are going on that could mean one will find its way into a television serial, but I can't indicate which one," said Gossman.
Marvin is expected to have a market-life of about five years, and he's likely to be followed by "son of Marvin" after that as American businesses turn increasingly to robotics, Gossman said.
"I really don't know whether robotics is the wave the future, Wave of the future may be a bit strong," said Gossman,
"Obviously, industry is going to evolve into using more and more automated tools in order to maintain its competitive position against other countries.. We're no longer isolated.
"Whether the labor unions like it or not, industry will be forced to use robots. It's an evolutionary change rather than a revolutionary change."

Iowa Precision Robotics, Ltd. principals: David L Gossman (dec.), Matthew L. Plagman (dec.) and Rand Weaver of Iowa Precision Robotics, Ltd.

Iowa Precision comes battling back. (Iowa Precision Robotics Ltd.)

Article from: American Metal Market | July 1, 1985 | Dave Fusaro.

CHICAGO–Iowa Precision Robotics Ltd. recently laid off most of its staff and even had its phone disconnected, but chief executive officer David Gossman says the year-old maker of personal robots is now back on the track to profitability. The Melvin, Iowa, company has delivered its first personal robot–with four more to follow–and has also lined up another $400,000 in financing to keep the wolf from the door. "We've just gone through a really critical period for cash flow," Gossman acknowledged.

Robot Insider, trying to get up to date on Gossman's activities, wasn't the only caller frustrated by the disconnected phone. Joseph Collins, both Jr. and Sr., wanted to reach Gossman to talk possible merger.

Greg Johnson was also a Software Engineer who worked at Iowa Precision Robotics during May 1984 – June 1985 (1 year 2 months).

He developed a custom DC brushless motor with commutation algorithm and hardware. Worked on Z80 code for motor control for motion and articulation of the robotic arm. Fun work and everything was built from scratch.

Patent Info:

Publication number    US5166872 A
Publication type    Grant
Application number    US 07/851,116
Publication date    Nov 24, 1992
Filing date    Mar 16, 1992
Priority date    Jul 17, 1989
Fee status    Lapsed
Inventors    Rand D. Weaver, David L. Gossman, Matthew L. Plagman
Original Assignee    Ability Technologies Corporation

System and method for controlling devices through communication processors and pluralities of address-associated device controllers sharing each communication processor

The system for controlling a plurality of devices includes a central processor that receives information from a user, translates the information into a command and sends the command to a communication processor. The communications processor formulates a device command to send to a remote device processor which is connected in close proximity to a device that the user wants to control. The communication processor also receives status information back from the device processor which has been accessed. The device processor receiving a command uses the command to control the device attached to the device processor. Each device processor is able to monitor the commands sent to other device processors and can be set to use these commands to control their attached device. This method of monitoring allows many devices to be controlled simultaneously with very few commands. The system also allows for different types of devices to be attached to the device controllers so the system can perform a multiplicity of functions.

Publication number    WO1991001520 A1
Publication type    Application
Application number    PCT/US1990/003866
Publication date    Feb 7, 1991
Filing date    Jul 10, 1990
Priority date    Jul 17, 1989
Inventors    Rand D Weaver, David L Gossman, Matthew L Plagman
Applicant    Ability Technologies Corp, Iowa Precision Robotics Ltd

As may be evident in the patent applicant above, the principals 'moved' to Ability Technologies Corp.

From the below article, under the Ability Technologies Corp banner, two more robots were built, "Futura" and "Versa Base." I have not been able to locate any pictures of further information on these.

The Daily Reporter    Spencer, Iowa    Friday, Feb. 9, 1990,    Page 3
Sacred Heart students meet robots
Recently, Kent Lachner gave Mickic Moklestad's fifth grade class (from Sacred Heart School) a tour of his robotics corporation, Ability Technologies Corporation, in Melvin,
While there they met Futura, a robot designed after a woman. Futura will go to Rome, Italy this month to work in a pizza restaurant — she may also be a fashion model, Her sponsors include a soft drink company and a beer company.
Students learned that the black box that controls each motion of the robot is called an "intelligent motor controller," and that a robot can have tip to 64 of them, They also learned that robots can't read, but they can scan and record,
Students learned that robots can weld cars, help paralyzed or handicapped people, pick up clothes in a dress factory, be security guards, deliver hospital trays, deliver mail and cook,
Another thing they learned there is that robots can he made to move in three ways — hydraulics, pneumatics (air) and electronics. Ability Technologies Corporation uses electronics,
While there, students also met another robot called "Versa Base," who danced and did a power demo.

See other early Humanoid Robots here.
See other early Mobile Robots here.

1978 – “Kermit” the Robot – Ron Milner and Larry Nicolson (American)


1978 – "Kermit" the Robot by Ron Milner and Larry Nicolson of Cyan Engineering for Atari Inc.

Owen Rubin Shows "Kermit" Ataris Prototype Robot Pet from Jeri Ellsworth on Vimeo.


Images from Owen Rubin's website here.








Kermit's fabricated security pass.



The Story Of Kermit The Robot by Owen Rubin.

I did not build Kermit. It was originally built by Atari's Engineering group in Grass Valley, California. Kermit was abandoned in the Sunnyvale offices, and I rescued him. I did some electronic work to make it run again (needed some rework on a some parts, and all the motion sensors for the wheels and head needed to be changed) and wrote some new software to make it do different things. As you can see, he is not in the best shape right now. It will power up (the battery is dead, but a desk power supply will work) but one motor has gone bad, and the sensors are out again. He also took a spill down the stairs at Atari in his last few days (my own fault for just letting him run free around the building) and it cracked his head (a plastic bowl) and broke a bunch of the bulbs in the head dome. Some day I may actually get him running again.

The hair was a joke of mine! There is a small button under the hair, so if you pet him, he stops and purrs! I also MADE the name badge, it was not an official badge. The security people were VERY angry that I made it, because it looked so good.

If you look at picture 10, you can see the sensors. The two big ones are ultrasonic, like the old Polaroid cameras. His head can rotate 180 degrees in EACH direction so he can "see" 360 degrees. When he would bump something, or sense an object in his way, he would stop and rotate his head through the full 360 mapping all directions, then go in the direction that had the greatest distance clear.

Next to the ultrasonic sensors are two microphones for sound. At the time, the only sensed sharp sounds like a hand clap. When the heard a clap. He would stop and turn his head towards the sound. A second clap would further define the direction and he would head towards the sound.

Below is a small heat sensor (we wanted him to look for warm bodies, but he would head into fireplaces. Never got that working. Above is a light sensor, "walk towards the light" was the idea. If a room went dark, he would look for light and sound.

Also visible is a small "leash" connector (directly under the dome below his left (our right) mic. This was a pot with a small switch. If you pulled on the leash, the switch would close and Kermit would try and center the leash to go that direction. He would continue to move "forward" or which ever way centered the leash until the switch opened (ie, he got close) and then wait for about 30 seconds before trying to move on his own. His first move was always straight backwards to see if the leash would tighten and close the switch.

He also has an antenna for remote control (used an old Radio Shack walkie-talkie with some tones for remote (required another board to be plugged into the bus slots (there is one empty.)

There are 4 boards in Kermit right now. Photos 2 and 7 show the end board which had all the sensor interface circuits and light drivers for the head. In Kermit 4 you can see the other board in the slots. The next one over is a "mouse brain", which is a small 6502 and EEPROM and RAM. The third board is a sound driver, simple wave circuits for music like sounds. He sounds a bit like R2D2! The last board is the driver relays for the stepper motors for the back wheels.

The wheels are direct driven by stepper motors that are held in by springs against the wheels. The front wheel is simply a castor with a leaf switch attached. The idea was that IF the leaf switch opened, Kermit would do an "emergency back" move. Basically, an R2D2 scream sound and both motors back as fast as possible for a short burst. Again, this was assumed that he was going over a ledge. Unfortunately, his death was in just such a move, as his weight is too front heavy, and he screamed and spun his wheels backwards as he tumbled down the stairs at Atari (seems that the stairs were the longest open space, and while the switch did work, he weight tipped him over head first before he could back up.)

Atari-Inc-Business-Is-Fun-Marty-Goldberg-Curt Vendel-p294 - Copy-x640

Extract from Atari Inc. – Business Is Fun, by  Marty-Goldberg-Curt Vendel, 2012. p259-65.
On May 25, 1977, the entire entertainment industry and our societal culture are altered in a permanent and monumental way. Nearly every facet of society discovers a whole new world brought to the big screen from a 'galaxy far, far away…' Star Wars premieres and takes not just America, but the entire world by storm!
With a storyline that revolves around knights wielding swords made of light, on a secret mission to save the princess from the evil empire, recover stolen plans and destroy the ultimate weapon… a new culture is born and the next generation of technologically advanced cinema lays the groundwork for the complete retooling of the movie theatre environment. All of this is put together with never-before-seen realistic groundbreaking special effects, sounds and a background score written by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
The movie showcases some of THE most realistic spaceship designs, laser pistols and computer terminals seen to date, along with two `droid' robots which are not only pivotal to the storyline, but provide an almost comic relief to the movie. One is a bumbling, skittish humanoid looking droid called C3PO who can speak proper English, among its numerous other dialects. The other is a cute small domed top Astromech droid called R2D2.
This particular character cannot speak any verbal words, but communicates by cute and emotionally toned bleeps and chirps, all which convey its demeanor and tone remarkably well to the audience. Unlike the countless sci-fi movies spanning decades prior, Star Wars created a used universe instead of shiny, clean and perfect objects and characters. Everything appears used, worn and working just as real world common items look outside of the movie theatre. The technologies shown in this movie seem plausible and reasonable, causing the audience to think and wonder "Why not?" So if there are realistic robots in the movie, why not real robots in today's world?
Star Wars would set imaginations ablaze with the burning desire to see those technologies becoming something everyone could own. With the accomplishments of the space race (landing on the moon, walking on the moon and satellites being lofted into space on a nearly monthly basis), space and technology were a real part of society. Magazine and newspaper articles of the day showed a stream of topics about how computers were improving society and were now within the reach of individuals to own in their own homes.
During the two years prior to the Star Wars premiere, people were already connecting high tech video game devices to their home televisions to turn the usual evening of cards or board games into a futuristic battle of skill on the video play-fields. Everywhere within society's gathering places – from bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and more, coin-operated video arcade games were popping up and becoming commonplace. The world was becoming more like the futuristic fantasies of the big screen, so with all of these marvels of technology it was very easy to accept the idea that soon robots would be seeing us to our seats at restaurants and cleaning windows on the sides of tall glass skyscrapers. Who knows – those nights of playing video games on the home TV might soon be played against a personal robot sitting right there holding the controls and battling it out against us in a round of Home PONG… that is, AFTER it had just brought out a tray of snacks and a few ice cold drinks.
Just a few weeks shy of the one year anniversary since the premiere of Star Wars, Ron Milner and Larry Nicolson of Cyan Engineering draft an Atari Inter-office Memo to Al Alcorn, Steve Bristow, Nolan Bushnell and Joe Keenan. Dated May 1, 1978, the subject is: "Proposal – Kermit the Robot." Kermit is actually meant to be an extension or a compliment to the 'Colleen' computer system. In the memo, it's explained that 'Kermit is an inquisitive little fellow who can get around a bit on his own but whose personality develops fully when working with the Colleen system. He can be operated through Colleen to act as remote eyes and ears for the user's program.' How Kermit would 'talk' to Colleen was a rather unique implementation. Instead of a wireless link, Kermit and Colleen would communicate using audio tones; in fact the tones would actually be a part of the robot's personality and provide a low cost means of communication.
As the R2D2 robot 'talked' through chirps and bleeps to the actors on the screen and to the audiences in the theatres, the Kermit Robot would do very much the same thing to communicate with its intelligent home base – Colleen. On May 26th, the Kermit robot project is approved and work commences. The first order of business is a drive train to allow the robot to move and navigate. Surface measurements for starting and maintaining force are calculated for wood, tile, linoleum, shag rug, pile rug and climbing onto and off of a throw rug. (all that was left to check on would be if Kermit could handle the harsh conditions of the planet Tatooine)
An interesting project was piggybacked off of the robot development called `Robot Chess.' Since the Cyan engineers were already deep into the development of a robot, these concepts and designs could be further evaluated and implemented into a board game of chess. The design was created on Atari's 6th anniversary (June 27, 1978), however the idea is never worked on past the concept stage.
In December of 1980, a company by the name of Applied Concepts would release nearly the same Chess game design, called BORIS HANDroid. Retailing for a staggering $1,400, the Cyan engineers believed they could have done a product with a retail cost of under $250 back in 1978 – yet another idea that Cyan prototyped goes out the door to be sold as a product, but unfortunately, not by Cyan.
As Kermit is being developed, the team begins to look at fun and playful capabilities and even accessories for the robot. Up and Down servo's are considered so it can 'dance' by bopping up and down – it could have lights, have the top turret turn, floor reflective sensors to follow paths and of course, what robot shouldn't also have its own super-squirt gun for water fights around the house? Yes, a design is drafted for a mechanical squirt gun to shoot water at Kermit's owner and companions. By September, work is proceeding to the point where the team starts to work on its own language for Kermit (called `ROBOL') to allow simple plain English commands to be entered into the Colleen computer and then translated into Kermit's own language.
Also during September, a second project is spun off from the Kermit design work. Larry Nicholson wants to do a stripped down toy robot based on the early stage design work with a single chip controller onboard and sensors that would include feelers, light and maybe a microphone for detecting sounds. Initially called mini-Kermits, they get their own designations – Varmit, Furmit and Wurmit.
It's finally time for Kermit to stretch his legs, or to be a bit more accurate, spin its wheels. Tethered to a desk control module via a long ribbon cable, Kermit is placed onto a large sheet of engineering drafting paper normally used by Atari engineers to draw out schematics, mechanical drawings and circuit designs. Kermit is fitted with a pen and a test is performed to gauge Kermit's navigational accuracy. Commands are sent to the onboard systems – Run, Turn, Run, Reverse, Turn, Run and Maneuver. Some wheel errors are detected during the turns and the team thinks this can be corrected through the software control. Kermit has taken its first `baby steps.'
Kermit took a walk with its leash (the ribbon cable attached the desktop control module) in October. Unfortunately, it's quickly discovered that Kermit cannot negotiate carpet! This is a serious failing and several major design changes needed to he made including wider drive wheels and a wider front direction castor wheel. The weight will have to be reduced quite a bit and also, Kermit's center of gravity is too far off because of the weight of the large battery behind the main axle.
Meanwhile the mini-Kermit idea has now moved into its own full blown project and a patent as well. On November 8, 1978, an Atari Invention Disclosure Form is filled out and submitted by Ron Milner and Gene Wise for their invention: Toy Robot. In the electronic toys class, the product is called `VARMIT.' On December 1st a fully working Varmit is completed and tested using one-wheel drive and two trailing wheels – the design proves to be very agile and maneuverable. Varmit looks like furry mouse; it even speaks by making noises, using a simple 555 timer chip and a small 4-bit DAC to control pitch and a capacitor to do a frequency sweep. The resulting sounds are cute and pleasant and fit the furry little robot.
Ron Milner notes on December 1, 1978 in his engineering logbook that "Varmit is now off to the Warner's Board meeting with Nolan. Some decision can be expected eventually." Unfortunately this board meeting would be the catastrophic showdown between Nolan Bushnell and Manny Gerard that turns into a drop down screaming match and ends with Nolan being removed as Chairman and CEO of Atari. Varmit never gets its chance to become a new Atari product, however, strangely enough, Varmit does not go away quietly.
By the mid 1980s, Varmit will make its return thanks to Nolan Bushnell. Initially called 'Micro Pets,' the new line of robots are officially called `Petsters' at their release. The Petsters would have all of the same characteristics and features of Varmit, and much more. They will don new personas, coming in all shapes and sizes – from cats, dogs, hamsters… and even a spider which was more of a hardwood floor mop than an entertainment robot.
At Cyan through November and December of 1978, work on Kermit continues and now most of the control and sensor logic are onboard and programming work continues. The team also realizes that the `Robol' language was becoming difficult to check out and may have been a mistake to create and implement, as it's making debugging the routines hard. Also, teaching Kermit things, like how to self navigate out of a corner and how to choose the longest free path were slow to implement.
Making matters worse, pressure was coming down from the top that Cyan needed to show something that demonstrated and worked properly or the project would be terminated. After two weeks, Kermit was now freely wandering the Cyan labs without bumping into things (most of the time) by using its onboard ultrasonic range sensors. Some housecleaning work on its routines were being done to fine tune its ability to navigate and sense its surroundings, and the team hoped to then start to add in some more interesting behaviors. But before they get to the next phase, on January 21, 1979 word comes to Cyan… Kermit has been canned due to Atari politics. Essentially the project was only being championed by Nolan (whose original mandate to the Cyan guys was 'design a robot that can bring me a beer') as well as Joe Keenan, Al Alcorn and Steve Bristow. However by January 1979, Nolan had been removed from his role in the company, Joe Keenan was now the Chairman and Steve Bristow was tasked with spinning down the Pinball manufacturing building and retooling it to build the new line of Home Computers which just debuted at the Winter CES in Las Vegas.
Kermit would still continue to be an active member of the Cyan engineering group though, traveling about the office. Chirping, beeping and happily maneuvering around the lab benches. Kermit even had its own Atari ID badge, only the second of two non-humans to ever have the privilege of being officially 'unofficial' Atari employees – the other was Mitchy, Jay Miner's dog.
Brought down to Atari's engineering building in Sunnyvale a few times, finally at one point after the project is no longer being active, Kermit was given to Owen Rubin to become its adopted caretaker. Kermit would sit in Owen's office until Owen began tinkering with its ROM code, trying to add some additional intelligence to its programming. Through some trial and error with this new programming, Kermit is sent off down the hallway to venture around the offices of the engineering building at 1272 Borregas Avenue.
Sadly, Kermit would ultimately meet with disaster. While some basic safety mechanisms were built into Kermit, they were not quite refined enough for long unattended excursions. On the front wheel of Kermit is a drop switch sensor so that if the front wheel of Kermit were to drop down suddenly, it would let out a squealing sound and immediately back up. However the sensor timing and its ability to react were not fast enough to save the little guy from a final deadly spill. One day Kermit took to his usual roaming of the halls of Atari, joyfully chirping and maneuvering about when he happened upon an open door to the stairwell. Kermit moved to the edge of the top stairs… its front wheel dropped as intended, but momentum and gravity would be quicker then Kermit's sensor and programming. Suddenly a blood curdling robot squeal echoes throughout 1272, followed by crashing, bouncing and breaking sounds.
Owen and others in the Engineering department ran to the stairwell – lying at the bottom of the next landing like humpty dumpty was Kermit, its dome cracked slightly and some components jarred out of place. Kermit's days of roaming the halls of Atari sadly came to an end that day and from then on, he would stay in the office, motionless and chirpless. When Owen left Atari, Kermit was taken home to become a part of Owen's collection of Atari memories.

No, this "Kermit the Robot" is not the robot version of "Kermit the Frog".


See other early Mobile Robots here.
See other early Humanoid Robots here.

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