Picture this: self-assembling blocks that, when given a task, have the ability to reorganize themselves into new geometries.
This is precisely what research scientist, John Romanishin, at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has long envisioned for a near future — robotic modules known as M-Blocks. Romanishin has teamed with his professor, Daniela Rus, and colleague, postdoc Kyle Gilpin, to prototype robotic cubes with no external moving parts, able to climb over, around and even leap onto each other.
Till now, robots have depended on arms or attachments to move themselves. "We wanted a simpler approach," says Romanishin, that uses fewer moving parts. Inside each M-Block is a flywheel that spins at 20,000 revolutions per minute, creating enough angular momentum when it brakes that the blocks assemble themselves in new configurations. On each face and edge of the cubes are magnets, naturally connecting the cubes when spurred by the flywheel.
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"This is exciting because a robot designed for a single task has a fixed architecture," says Professor Rus. A 'fixed architecture' may perform a single task well but, under unknown or unpredictable environments, perform poorly if it is unable to adapt. Thus, "it is better to consider modular robots that can attain whatever shape is needed for the manipulation, navigation or sensing needs of a task."
"It's one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time." How M-Blocks stand out, though, is by showing numerous modes of locomotion. It is not simply one cube flipping around, but multiple working together, dragging each other. This kind of cooperative group behavior is unprecedented.
As the robotic system becomes better defined and simplified, the aim would be miniaturization, swarms of microbots self-assembling into more complex objects and structures.
"We want hundreds of cubes, scattered randomly across the floor, to be able to identify each other, coalesce and autonomously transform into a chair, or a ladder or a desk, on demand," says Romanishin.
Perhaps it is a mere matter of time until entire buildings are self-assembled and reassembled with the same logic needed to create these early robotic cube prototypes.
For more on self-assembly projects, check out:
- When Buildings Build Themselves
- Fluid Crystallization / Skylar Tibbits + Arthur Olson
- The Self-Assembly Line / Skylar Tibbits