Colorado State University Grad Student Honored with Popular Mechanics Next Generation Award

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A spherical robot that climbs stairs has won a Colorado State University mechanical engineering graduate student recognition as one of the "10 Most Brilliant Innovators of 2009" by Popular Mechanics magazine.

Greg Schroll also received the publication’s Next Generation Breakthrough Award for his machine that could one day explore extraterrestrial landscapes.

Popular Mechanics began granting their Breakthrough Awards in 2004 to find innovators and researchers from around the nation who “use their mix of skill and imagination to remind us how real work gets done.” The magazine honored Schroll and the other recipients in an Oct. 8 ceremony in New York City.

Schroll’s love for robotics began in childhood with help from his father, a mechanical engineer.

"My father was my inspiration and his early encouragement jumpstarted my fascination with science and engineering,” said Schroll.

The pair spent quality time in their Chatham, N.J., home, building an all-terrain tank and an air cannon to smash pumpkins in the backyard.

“I remember when I used to play soccer many years ago, I would often think about how fun it would be to remotely control the soccer ball to roll in any way I commanded," he said.

While researching concepts to complete his undergraduate thesis work as student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the soccer ball idea began to fascinate him again. After only one month of tinkering, his childhood dreams became a reality.

Schroll used whatever he found sitting around to construct his prototype. The top globe to a gumball machine makes up the robot’s polycarbonate outer shell while the red rubber tracking that helps the robot glide came from a rubber playground ball. Inside, remote-control car and helicopter parts comprise the distinctive machine.

The robot’s exclusive ability to easily navigate inclines and roam rough terrain is possible because of a set of gyroscopes that store momentum within the sphere. The prototype demonstrates the concept that accumulating momentum and releasing it on command can propel an object, even up a set of steep stairs.

Schroll is continuing to work on his prototype as a master’s student at CSU under the guidance of David Alciatore, a professor in the Mechanical Engineering department.

“Of all of the students I have interacted with over the years at all institutions and at all levels, I truly believe Greg has more promise than any other students I have ever met. This is not an exaggeration,” said Alciatore. “He is incredibly creative, has strong drive and enthusiasm and loves a challenge. His gyro-based robot invention and research plan are very exciting and I very much look forward to working with him and guiding him through the future stages of his project.”

Schroll foresees his invention being used for planetary exploration, search-and-rescue operations, surveillance methods and hazardous environment assessment.

“There are already many ground robots that operate in these fields, but the sphere does have some particular advantages,” said Schroll.

The robot is enclosed within a rugged and resilient uniform shell leaving no obvious points of weakness. Its spherical shape prevents it from ever being turned upside down which would allow potential drivers to maneuver the robot in a variety of environments without becoming incapacitated. The robot also has the ability to be sealed for amphibious work.

The robot won the prestigious de Flores Contest at MIT in the spring 2008 based on the project’s outstanding ingenuity and creative judgment. In November, Schroll was recognized with a $15,000 prize from the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation. The competition honors and rewards university student inventors for projects that have the potential of receiving patent protection – a process Schroll is in the midst of completing.

"I am incredibly honored and flattered that Popular Mechanics considers me to be one of the ’10 Most Brilliant Innovators of 2009,’ and it’s really exciting that other people are interested in the spherical robot,” said Schroll. “I’d like to continue working on my robot through a corporation after I graduate. I’d like to be at a point in my life where I can pursue these interesting ideas I have and make a living inventing.”