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Self-assembling Robots Could One Day Combine to Build Furniture, Bridges [VIDEO]

Oct 05, 2013 12:24 PM EDT
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M-Blocks
Researchers have created small, self-assembling robots capable of leaping through the air, rolling across the ground and climbing over one another.
(Photo : YouTube/Image Capture)

Researchers have created small, self-assembling robots capable of leaping through the air, rolling across the ground and climbing over one another.

Called M-Blocks, the robots are cubes with no moving parts. Instead, they contain flywheels capable of reaching speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute. When stopped, an angular momentum is created. The faces and edges of the cubes, meanwhile, are equipped magnets.

"It's one of these things that the [modular-robotics] community has been trying to do for a long time," Daniela Rus, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a statement. "We just needed a creative insight and somebody who was passionate enough to keep coming at it -- despite being discouraged."

The hope, according to the researchers, is that the model can be miniaturized so as to produce swarms of microbots like the "liquid steel" androids from "Terminator II."

A more refined version of the robots could be used at their current scale to, say, temporarily repair bridges or buildings during emergencies, offer structural support to scaffolding for construction projects, or form heavy machinery and even furniture.

"What they did that was very interesting is they showed several modes of locomotion," Hod Lipson, a robots researcher from Cornell University, said. "Not just one cube flipping around, but multiple cubes working together, multiple cubes moving other cubes -- a lot of other modes of motion that really open the door to many, many applications, much beyond what people usually consider when they talk about self-assembly."

Going forward, the MIT researchers are working to build an army of 100 cubes and the algorithms to guide them.

"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," John Romanishin, who first proposed the idea for the modular robots as a student, explained.

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