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Robot Furniture Transforms to Fit Your Needs [VIDEO]

May 23, 2014 05:52 PM EDT

Scientists are developing small robotic modules that fit together to form "adaptive furniture," changing their combined shape to meet the needs of their owner.

The small, spherical, interlocking robots are called Roombots and were designed by the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) at école polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

According to the Swiss team currently perfecting the unusual robots - which currently look like small two-toned plastic soccer balls - the idea behind their project is not exactly new.

"The idea of different units that self-assemble and change morphology has been around for quite a while, but nobody came up with a good idea for how to use them," project engineer Massimo Vespignani told Discovery News.

However, despite their unusual nature, the Roombots were designed with a very down-to-Earth purpose in mind.

"The Roombots project is a bit of a crazy project," EPFL scientist Auke Ijspeert said in a recent video interview. "The whole idea is to have furniture that changes functionality completely depending on the needs of the person."

A main purpose of this is assistive technology, Auke explains, saying that the Roombots can create furniture or alter preexisting furniture for anyone who has trouble moving around.

"We will have furniture that helps the person," he adds. "For instance, a table approaching a person to bring medicine or water."

A study detailing the technologies that make the Roombot modules possible was published in the journal Robotics and Autonomous Systems for its July issue.

According to the study, the tiny robot modules work with a series of three high-torque servo motors and interlocking rotational rings, allowing them to grab onto one another and even everyday furniture - provided that that furniture is outfitted with special surface plates designed to give the robots something to grip and climb without harming the furniture itself.

Despite a promising beginning, it will be some time before you'll start seeing Roombots crawling around apartments.

"There are still a lot of research questions and technical challenges to solve." Vespignani told Gizmag. "I would say they could be in the market in 20 years."

(Credit: Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL)

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