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Modular robots win NSF funding

A robotics company started by a UC Davis engineering professor and his former graduate student has been awarded a second round of funding from the National Science Foundation small business innovation research program.

The grant provides at least $500,000 over the next two years to Barobo, based in West Sacramento, with potential for up to another $500,000 in matching funds if the company can make sales and attract venture capital.

“We are very excited about receiving this grant,” said Harry Cheng, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “This is a milestone in transferring our technology from the lab into a commercial product.”

Cheng hopes his modular robot “Mobot” can become a useful tool for teaching robotics as early as third grade, and engage a new generation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A single Mobot module has wheels at each end and two hinges in the center. An individual module can drive on its wheels, crawl like an inchworm, or raise one end of its body and swivel around.

The modules can be connected together to make wheeled vehicles, “snakes,” “gorilla,” humanoid, or other shapes with different applications. A new video produced by Barobo shows some of the configurations in action.

Cheng and Barobo have been working with regional middle and high schools to use the Mobot in classes. Students can learn to build and program the robots using laptop computers. They can also design and build new prototype parts for the robots using three-dimensional printing.

Cheng and his former graduate student, Graham Ryland, started the company in 2011 based on the patented technology the two invented while Ryland was studying for his master’s degree. The technology is licensed by the university to Barobo. The inventors received an NSF SBIR Phase I grant of $150,000 from NSF last year.

Cheng also established the UC Davis K-14 Outreach Center for Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM) to improve education in computing, science, technology, engineering and math. The center is hosting C-STEM Day at UC Davis on Saturday, May 5, an event that will include “RoboPlay Competitions” in which local students will demonstrate their projects with the Mobot.

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