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Dash Robotics' Bio-Inspired Bugs

Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

A couple of weeks ago, our family was lucky enough to have a tour of Dash Robotics' facility in Sunnyvale, California, where Nick Kohut and his partners have a young startup designing and manufacturing remarkable little robot bugs that you can control with your smartphone or tablet. 

My son, Hudson, and I had first seen these at a tech convention in San Francisco organized by getgeeked and SVEntrepreneurs. We had been impressed by both the robots' speed and agility - as well as by the fact that you can build the robot's "skin" from a single sheet of plastic, and swap it out later if you want to change the robot's color or design. 

Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Nick Kohut, cofounder of Dash Robotics. Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Nick, who showed us around the Dash facility himself, met his partners, Andrew Gillies and Paul Birkmeyer, when they were all doctoral students at Berkeley. 

They were fascinated by the fields of biomimetics and bio-inspired engineering, and in particular by the highly efficient way that insects move. 

Insects, of course, have had hundreds of millions of years to get it right (the oldest definitive insect fossil dates back around 400 million years), while robots are still learning to walk and fly.

Dash Robotics' little robobugs are controlled by two tiny motors and travel at surprising speed, moving particularly well over gravel or other surfaces that give them traction.  

Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.
Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

The circuit board that controls the robot bugs' movements, via a bluetooth connection with your mobile device, was originally designed using an Arduino board, but is now custom-made in China. 

Likewise the prototype skins were originally made from sheets of cardboard, but are now plastic, which is more durable and offers remarkable resilience to being dropped, even from a considerable height. 

Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Dash Robotics quickly secured early funding, including from private Chinese-American investor Elizabeth Xu, CTO of BMC Software, who was touring the facility with her family when we were there. 

The robobugs will be coming to market this October/November as toys, sold through Amazon and Dash itself at a very reasonable $49. Nick sees possible alternate uses in the future in search and rescue, where the fast-moving bugs could explore areas other technology couldn't reach. 

The toys are fun and educational, and require some simple self-assembly, constructing the origami-style body of the bug from the single sheet. 

When offered as part of a crowdfunding program early on, 1,000 bugs were sold in 12 days, so the prospects for the holiday season look very good. 

And they're certainly inspiring. Our own ten year old son Hudson quickly built an object-sensing robot (below) from Lego Mindstorms after touring the Dash Robotics facility. He was also fascinated to learn that an Arduino board could be used for a commercial prototype. 

Hudson's Lego Mindstorms object-sensing robot. Photograph copyright © 2015 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

If you're interested to learn more about the field of biomimetics that Dash Robotics is exploring, this article from the  Los Angeles Times makes fascinating reading. 


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